A SELECT GROUP of rising young jazz stars (Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick, Roy Hargrove, Marcus Roberts and Christopher Hollyday) have been much ballyhooed in the mainstream media lately, and their imposing technical prowess is not to be denied. They are all so serious, though; they too often lack the joy and playfulness that adds pleasure to art. It is precisely that good-humored exuberance that distinguishes "The Inventor," the new album by alto saxophonist Bobby Watson.

Watson, who served his apprenticeship in Art Blakey's band at the same time as Marsalis, is a highly skilled player -- so skilled, in fact, that he can relax and let his bold, slashing lines erupt spontaneously without the strained perfectionism of his contemporaries. He can sashay sexily through the bouncy calypso tune, "For Children of All Ages"; he can sweet-talk seductively on the ballad, "The Long Way Home"; and he can mimic contagious, braying laughter on the hard-swing number "Heckle & Jeckle."

Watson is joined in several entertaining two-horn dialogues by trumpeter Melton Mustafa, the distinguished alumnus of the Count Basie Orchestra, another band that knew how to have fun with jazz. Pushing everything relentlessly forward is Victor Lewis, Blakey's most obvious heir on drums. Lewis has never pushed harder than he does on "The Shaw of Newark," a driving hard-bop tribute to Lewis's former boss, Woody Shaw. Watson and Mustafa tear through that song with the reckless abandon made possible by their unhesitating confidence in their technique.


"The Inventor" (Blue Note). Appearing Friday and Saturday at One Step Down.