What do you get when you place one of today's most harmonically sophisticated jazz saxophonists in a relaxed, groove-oriented setting? Music that's at once challenging and accessible.

For proof, check out tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker's new release, "Time Is of the Essence" (Verve). The album's title alludes to the three timekeepers who accompany Brecker--drummers Elvin Jones, Jeff "Tain" Watts and Bill Stewart--as well as the slippery rhythms frequently created by organist Larry Goldings and guitarist Pat Metheny.

Beginning with "Arc of the Pendulum," one of five original tunes on the album, Brecker's insistent tenor traces broad intervals over Jones's triple-meter pulse until Metheny and Goldings split a few soulful choruses. Brecker's command of the tenor is even more evident on the next track, Goldings's "Sound Off," as he explores the melody's harmonic implications at Watts's urging. Once again the presence of a Hammond organ is crucial to the tune's appeal, adding color and emphasizing the welcome shifts in dynamics.

The album's after-hours feel is sustained by "Half Past Late," a simple and engaging theme that initially finds Brecker casually trading riffs with Goldings, then improvising with wit and bite over Stewart's undulating pulse. Eventually, Metheny brings his fluid, blues-tinged touch to bear.

One of Metheny's tunes, the jaunty "Timeline," is also partly responsible for the album's cool allure. The guitarist solos with typical ease, combining fluid runs with bluesy reiterations before a few choruses from Brecker heighten the tension. Still, the one tune that best illustrates the album's fundamental perspective is "Renaissance Man," a wonderfully evocative tribute to the late saxophonist Eddie Harris. The piece, composed by George Whitty, quickly reveals the affection Brecker and his band mates have for Harris's brand of infectious soul-jazz.

Given Brecker's lifelong devotion to John Coltrane's music, it's also great to hear him collaborating here with Jones, who powered the Coltrane Quartet with such tumultuous force and energy. Indeed, "Outrance," the album's incendiary coda, is both a compelling reminder of Coltrane's influence on Brecker and a vivid example of Jones's still-formidable power.

Brecker performs Thursday and Friday at Blues Alley.

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8154.)

CAPTION: The tenor saxophonist plays it cool--and hot--in "Time Is of the Essence."