HAMID DRAKE, ALBERT BEGER, WILLIAM PARKER Evolving Silence, Vol. 2 Earsay Jazz has grown considerably in this country in the past couple decades. Its growth has spawned activity in the freer areas of the genre, with night spots like Tel Aviv's Hagadah Hasmalit putting on regular shows to modest but faithful audiences, and even a handful of avant garde festivals emerging, such as the annual White Night event. Last year, a wider cross-section of jazz fans was exposed to what is possibly the world's best rhythm section in free jazz - Chicago-based bass player William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake - at the 2005 Tel Aviv Jazz Festival. It was at the same gig that Israeli saxophonist-flutist Albert Beger made a guest appearance, giving fans a taste of what they might expect from his subsequent releases. Beger's latest project - recorded with Parker and Drake the day after their shared performance in Tel Aviv - has arrived in the form of Evolving Silence, Vol. 1 and 2. At times in the trio's festival performance, it seemed Beger was somewhat in awe of his better known cohorts, but that he might also be capable of closing the gap between them. For some years now, Beger has been plying his exploratory craft and sparring with artists on the level of Parker and Drake, and Evolving Silence confirms his growth. Vol. 1 was released last year to great critical acclaim, and the second half of the session shows that the praise was not misplaced. On the collection's title track, for example, Beger finds his place between the Americans with darting splashes of colors, marrying his saxophone statements with the rhythm section's own explorations. "Duo #3" opens with a free-flowing synergy between Beger's alto flute and Parker's bass, with Beger squeezing in vocal interjections between his instrumental forays. This is a captivating duet full of vigor and daring, which, true to the essence of the sub-genre, never fails to surprise. The hypnotic, driving grooves of "Funky Lacy" get the blood rushing, with Drake powering the engine hard but with consummate subtlety from the rear. The last cut, "Skies of Israel," opens with a dark bowed solo by Parker that paints an evocative and foreboding Middle Eastern landscape. The mellifluous bass provides the substratum for the entire piece, with Drake adding deft percussion punctuation. Even when Beger goes out on a limb, you get the sense that all three - as a unit and individually - have a rich story to tell. AVISHAI COHEN Continuo RazDaz/MCI Like Beger, stellar Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen also calls on his Middle Eastern roots on his latest album. That, however, is where the similarity between the two discs ends. This is Cohen's seventh venture as leader, and follows several years of rave reviews as a sideman for piano-keyboard titan Chick Corea. The title of this effort, Continuo, is apt. Cohen appears to be following a continuum, both musically and artistically: His first three albums were melodic outings with touches of Middle Eastern seasoning. Later efforts featured forays into salsa and even more pop-oriented areas of the genre, but Cohen has now reverted to type. He's formed a tight unit of like-minded players with pianist Sam Barsh, drummer Mark Guiliana and oud player Amos Hoffman, and Continuo comes replete with strong melodies and great exuberance. A solo by Barsh gives "Emotional Storm" a somewhat unconventional feel; elsewhere in the piece, Guiliana takes the lead before all four players return for an intriguing, slightly off-kilter coda. Cohen dispenses with the piano entirely on the closing track, opting for 6-string electric bass instead of his acoustic instrument to generate a far more Levantine ambience. That ambience is embellished further when Hoffman joins the fray, and by Guiliana's efforts on darbouka. The CD cover shows Cohen walking through a desert landscape, and the last cut on the album evokes a lilting camel ride that reminds the listener - in case there was any doubt - whence Cohen hails.