When musicians stray from acoustic, straight-ahead jazz to flirt with simpler pop melodies, steady grooves, electric instruments and vocalists, the most common results are lower musical standards and less personal performances. Jacky Terrasson makes such a move on his new album, "What It Is," but the payoff is the best album of his career.

How can this be? Well, the Parisian pianist has often been a prisoner of his own virtuosity, compelled to prove how many notes he could play in a chorus rather than how much emotion. By concentrating on more obvious melodies and by experimenting with different arrangements, Terrasson has broken out of that prison and expressed himself as never before.

The new album was produced by Miles Davis's former percussionist, Mino Cinelu, who adds rippling Latin rhythms to every song, thus freeing the pianist from the tyranny of retro-swing. Terrasson even plays electric piano on four of the nine numbers, including reworkings of Pink Floyd's "Money" and Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" and most tellingly on "Better World," a tribute to Chick Corea's first Return to Forever Band. The leader further shakes things up by featuring Lou Reed's former bassist, a harmonica soloist and a Cuban singer.

It works only because the playing is so inventive and because Terrasson's melodic themes are so striking, especially on the heartfelt tunes for his wife ("Baby Plum"), his son ("Sam's Song"), his brother ("Toot-Toot's Tune") and a friend who died of AIDS ("Little Red Ribbon").

Appearing Friday at Borders Books at 18th and L streets NW and Saturday and Sunday at Blues Alley. To hear a free Sound Bite from Jacky Terrasson, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8109. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)

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