MARCUS JOHNSON

"Just Doing What I Do"

Three Keys Music

ALYSON WILLIAMS

"It's About Time"

Three Keys Music

NICK COLIONNE

"Just Come on In"

Three Keys Music

So what is smooth jazz keyboardist and local label honcho Marcus Johnson doing on "Just Doing What I Do"? Turns out he fields that very question on his new CD. "What I try to do is take the piano and make it my voice," he explains during an intrusive mid-album interview/blurb. Fortunately, Johnson only touches on his influences, background and desire to take what he's learned and "bring it back to M.J." He's far better off letting the music speak for itself, filling the air with blues-tinted melodies and radio-geared urban grooves.

The best tracks invariably find him reaching beyond lite-jazz atmospherics into R&B and elsewhere, whether cleverly re-arranging the Alicia Keys hit "If I Ain't Got You," smoothly reworking Beyonce's "Me, Myself and I," or teaming up with vocalist Scooby on the funk lament "Same Thang." What's more, the album's bonus track is truly that: a sultry version of Simply Red's "Holding Back the Years," drawn from singer Alyson Williams's new CD, "It's About Time."

Williams's sorely under-appreciated talents bloom on her new disc. Her slightly raspy voice can make even sweet nothings sound soulful, as she proves on the opening track "Soft and Warm." But when she latches onto a more substantial lyric, look out -- she really shines. "Say Goodbye" is a particularly good example of her knack for churning conflicting emotions until they create an almost hypnotic effect. Another big plus is her combative duet with Tony Terry on "Tomorrow," the product of an inspired pairing. Still, Williams never sounds more persuasive or emotionally fed up than when telling a cheating lover to get lost on "No More," a tune she co-wrote with Johnson.

Guitarist Nick Colionne, another artist on Johnson's roster, is clearly a fan of George Benson and Wes Montgomery. He pays direct and indirect tribute to both musicians on his new CD, "Just Come on In," layering contemporary jazz grooves with octave runs and single-note rhapsodies. Echoes of Montgomery's organ-laced legacy, celebrated on "From the Wes Side," are a welcome touch, and Colionne's Bensonlike flair for blending jazz, pop and R&B sounds is amply showcased throughout the recording.

-- Mike Joyce

Appearing Friday at the Birchmere. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Marcus Johnson, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8124; to hear Alyson Williams, press 8125; to hear Nick Colionne, press 8126. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)