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Nature has always influenced and infiltrated the music of mankind, from the symphonies of Beethoven to songs of the Eagles. But in two new albums, elephants, wolves, birds and other natural musicians offer more than inspiration - they have leading musical roles.

- COMPOSER-SAXOPHONIST Paul Winter's projects have often been nigh on impossible to categorize, let alone describe - and words will be pretty much inadequate when trying to write about his latest, "Prayer for the Wild Things." Several terms do come to mind: artful, intriguing, eerie, groundbreaking, a wonder of its (rare) kind.Be forewarned, however: The traditionally inclined may not find "Prayer" to be classically "melodic" because of its experimental approach. Winter stretches boundaries.

As is usually the case with his albums, this is an ensemble, or consort, effort. He's joined by cellist Eugene Friesen, percussionist Glen Velez, the American Indian chants of Arlie Neskahi & the White Eagle Singers, among others.

But the most fascinating aspect of this "ensemble" is that it is bolstered by a chorus of wild soloists - the recorded voices, calls and cries of coyotes, mountain lions, bear cubs and many, many birds, from eagles to loons (27 creatures in all).

A few tracks were recorded on location along the Missouri River and in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, Winter's keening saxophone reaching out to beast and fowl. In other places the human instruments stand in for the animals, as on the wonderful "Moose Walk," where Dennis Smylie's contrabass clarinet takes on a lower-register motif, making it, as Winter puts it, a "spirit ally" of that gangly quadruped, encountering all manner of birds and other creatures during a morning stroll. Other memorable tracks portray "Elk Horns" (with a double meaning), "Grizzly Bear Cubs with Their Mom After Breakfast" and, fancifully, "Antelope Dreams of Her African Cousins."

"Prayer for the Wild Things" is an aural companion to, and in part inspired by, artist Bev Doolittle's painting/print of the same name. The artwork is in turn linked to a lyrical invocation by Marcellus Bear Heart Williams, who entreats, "Fill our hearts with tolerance, appreciation and respect for all living things so that we might live together in harmony and peace." You may have seen Doolittle's eye-teasing print, which is miniaturized in the CD booklet: An Indian is pictured upon a rocky outcrop, arms outstretched to the sky. The shapes of dozens of creatures are camouflaged among the boulders, trees and tangled roots in the landscape below the man.

Doolittle's art is not "traditional"; neither is Paul Winter's. The music requires ceding certain expectations. Sound effects, improvisation and more than a little impressionism make this an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Those able to surrender to its ambience will be rewarded, finding themselves awash in a symphony of nature, one that brings the spirit of wilderness, and wildness, into their living rooms.

Winter won a Grammy for his last album, "Spanish Angel." "Prayer for the Wild Things" is a very strong contender for the same honor.

- JIM CENTORINO's "Ivory" is a broadly similar if more musically conservative concept, presenting a dozen evocative portraits of endangered animals and exotic settings. The album is sprinkled with recordings of lapping water and wild animals - yowling wolves, blowing whales, chattering dolphins, chittering birds and roaring elephants. Centorino composed the themes and plays synthesizer and trumpet - which gives the music a distinctive, if sometimes perplexingly Latinesque, zest - and is abetted by a guest guitarist, pianist and harpist.

Among the most appealing tracks: the bold "Black Gold (Rhino)," with a particularly alluring lead trumpet and flavor; the quieter, lyrical "To a Waterfowl"; "Painted Wings," a butterfly homage with pretty piano, gently swirling synthesizers and harp; a colorful "Carnaval Tropical"; and the subdued yet dramatic conclusion, "Ivory," a tribute to the overhunted elephants of Africa and Asia that includes a startling, meaningful gunshot.

The collection's mildly hurt by too few stand-out melodies - there's a movie soundtrack-like familiarity cut to cut - but the overall concept is engaging and thought-provoking.

Centorino is also using a portion of his profits from the album's sales to make donations to organizations that care for and protect endangered animals, from the National Audubon Society and the Jane Goodall Institute to various wildlife funds and metropolitan zoos.

"Ivory," then, is moving music with a message, benefitting a good cause.