THE SAXOPHONE has been an indispensable component of Texas R&B, and for years Johnny Reno has been done his best to keep it that way. "Third Degree," his latest album, champions the cause -- notably with a laconic remake of the Joe Liggins tune "Pink Champagne" -- but overall the music has more forward than retro thrust.

Just because he's pared down his band and developed a leaner and more contemporary rock sound, however, doesn't mean Reno's sax is any less potent. He can still burn a hole right through an arrangement, as he proves on "My Mistake," or slip easily into a soulful groove, as he does on "Pink Champagne" and "One True Love." The latter tune and "The Light" are typical of the new emphasis on radio-friendly material, and while they don't rank among the album's best tracks, they're far from being empty pop concessions. Of the lot, the most accessible are "Learning to Love," if only because Reno underscores the melody with a tone and swagger reminiscent of Clarence Clemons, and the similarly Springsteen-ish "This Ain't the Way."

As with all his records, though, don't be surprised if this one leaves you feeling that Reno has to be heard (and seen) in concert to be fully appreciated.