When altoist Frank Morgan returned to making music in the mid-80s–after most of a lifetime spent shuttling in and out of prison on various drug convictions–he suddenly had the jazz world on a string. Critics hailed him as the rightful heir to Charlie Parker’s musical legacy, and audiences rushed to buy his albums and hear his performances, finding their faith validated in guest shots by some of the music’s brightest young stars. Morgan should never have had to deal with comparisons to Bird (no one wins that game), but he still brought a number of hard-won gifts to the party: most notable were his sure command of the bebop mother tongue, the slipperiness of his phrasing, and the unique worldview of an artist who has spent so much of his life deprived of freedom. But throughout the 90s Morgan has produced one album of dreary ballads after another–despite the fact that his well-documented problems with intonation can turn slow tempos into minefields. All of which makes his most recent essay, Love, Lost & Found (Telarc), such a delightful departure. Morgan sticks to standards and still keeps things awfully low key, but on this album his music has much of its old bounce and a rediscovered control of intonation. In short, he sounds better than he has in years, allowing us to again concentrate on his unsentimental lyricism at any tempo, his honey-and-vinegar tone, and on the flashes of bebop anarchy that stamp his music as the real thing (instead of some book-l’arned extract). The Chicago rhythm section of pianist Willie Pickens, bassist Larry Gray, and drummer Wilbur Campbell (a Morgan contemporary) will provide all the support anyone could want, and enough of the variety that Morgan needs, to light up the new Jazz Showcase, which–with its surprisingly intimate profile and versatile sound system–is already shaping up as a world-class setting for jazz. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 and 10 PM, next Friday and Saturday, April 12 and 13, 9 and 11 PM, and next Sunday, April 14, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 670-2473. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.