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Mulgrew Miller is not a Saturday morning cartoon character. He happens to be the best unknown jazz pianist on the scene today. The casual jazz follower may not be familiar with Miller, but aficionados have been following Miller since 1977 when he joined the Duke Ellington Band under the direction of Mercer Ellington. Then it was on to the Betty Carter Trio, Woody Shaw and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. In 1985 Mulgrew became the leader of his own group with the album "Keys to the City," which is in my collection. Miller continued to record for Landmark, but he also spent five years touring with Tony Williams for Blue Note.

Now Miller is on his own, and his new release "Hand in Hand" (Novus CD 63153-2) is his best effort so far. A Miller strength is he is willing to share attention with his sidemen and, in this case, that's very wise.Tenor Joe Henderson, who swept nearly every honor last year except acoustic spoons, joins in five of the nine cuts and is, well, just Joe. Trumpeter Eddie Henderson has a strong outing, as does Kenny Garrett on alto. Both are on all nine tracks. Rounding out the group are Steven Nelson on vibes, drummer Lewis Nash and Christian McBride on bass.

Eight of the cuts are Mulgrew originals, and one observer noted that Mulgrew "revels in mysterious intensity." Whatever that means, it works.

- MARK WHITFIELD has released his third album for Warner Bros. Records and it's one of those that I liked better every time I played it. The title is simply "Mark Whitfield" (CD 9 45210-2) and he gives us a little of this and a little of that, from ballads to R&B to Miles' "Freddie Freeloader." Whitfield handles all with strength and versatility. Says Whitfield, "I've never gone as far into the pop side as I have with this album, but I have always done a lot of things that are not totally mainstream, traditional jazz. That's just how I am."

- MARLON JORDAN and Ryan Kisor are a couple of trumpet players in their early 20s who have been praised in this space. Roy Hargrove is another. But let's not forget Terence Blanchard, who is a hoary 30 years of age. He continues to turn out impressive efforts, including "The Malcolm X Jazz Suite" (Columbia CD CK 53599). Blanchard, who took over for Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz Messengers several years ago, has become good friends with filmmaker Spike Lee and wrote and arranged for Lee's movie about Malcolm X. Before that Blanchard did the same for "Jungle Fever."

All is going well for Blanchard, unlike four years ago when Blanchard had to sit out a year. He discovered that he had been forming his embouchure (of French derivation, meaning how the lips and tongue are applied to a mouthpiece) incorrectly, resulting in cut lips. Says Blanchard, "Some of my teachers didn't know what I was doing. They did not know I was getting cut all the time because the lip was over the teeth. It's actually supposed to be in front - not over them."