IF JAZZ WERE a meritocracy saxophonist and composer Fred Foss would be a lot better known and appreciated. A veteran musician who's worked with Hugh Masekela, Lionel Hampton and Abdullah Ibrahim, Foss has just released his first album as a leader. "The Journey" is an impressive debut, an album marked by passion, poetry, lyricism and a truly venturesome spirit.

Playing alto and tenor saxes as well as flute, Foss displays grace and grit as he moves between straight- ahead jazz and some of the music's outer reaches. His playing is alternately tender and bold, and despite the album's broad stylistic reach, he never sounds out of his element.

Still, the key to the album's success is collaboration. Pianist George Colligan, trumpeter Marcus Rabb, trombonist Jay Gibble, drummer Harold Summey, percussionist Sam Turner and vocalist Neal Gaston are essential to the mix. They add to the album's pleasures in ways that are both subtle and stirring. Moreover, the arrangements by Roger Woods, who doubles on saxophones and bass clarinet, skillfully exploit the octet's unusual palette of colors and textures. Small wonder "The Journey," though nearly an hour long, seems to end all too quickly. FRED FOSS -- "The Journey" (Amosaya). Appearing Monday at Blues Alley. To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8113. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)