He likes playing in ensembles, and praises the high quality of local musicians. "Even jazz musicians from New York are scared to death of players from Texas," he says. "You see a lot of creativity and artistry here."

But he admits that the city lacks the firmly entrenched jazz club scene of, say, Chicago, New York or L.A. -- and it's a shortcoming he'd love to remedy. He's just taken over as manager of Ovations, which he's turned into a full-time jazz club. "My motivation," he notes, "is that there aren't a lot of venues to play, and [fewer] with a really nice piano like we have."

How would he advise a newcomer to enter the world of Bird, Dizzy, Satchmo, Thelonious and Chet without going nuts? "That's tough, but I would say it's like the first time you eat sushi -- have a guide. Go with somebody you trust and listen to what they say. I mean, I love sushi, but there's some items on the menu that I won't touch. It's the same with jazz. Just because you don't like one [kind] of jazz doesn't mean you don't like jazz." (B.R.)

Critic's Choice: Joe LoCascio

Best Horn/Horn Section
TKoh!
They don't really rehearse. Their lineup is always changing. They're really more of a jam session. But that doesn't stop TKoh! (pronounced T-K-O) from being a mutha of a band. They can play funk with the best of them. They have credible jazz chops, love R&B and their shows burn from start to finish. Just ask anyone who's seen them. These guys know how to put on a show that gets people on the dance floor, yet at the same time features blistering solos.

Lead by Kelly Dean, who co-founded TKoh! in 1994 and does double duty as saxophonist and lead vocalist, TKoh!'s concept was relatively simple: Get some of Houston's best players to get together every week for a jam session (no one said you had to restrict that to New York City or New Orleans). In fact, if you miss TKoh! on Sundays, you may find its members playing around town, doing studio work, leading their own bands or teaching college music classes (whoever said, "Those who can't do, teach" never heard these guys). The result is one of the most dangerous horn sections around.

Every Sunday, TKoh! features at least seven horn players and a killer rhythm section who get together and blow the roof off of Instant Karma, their current Sunday-night home. "Guest" musicians and singers often join in and jam, covering music by Stevie Wonder, Maceo Parker, Steely Dan or James Brown. There's ample room for solos -- the group is, after all, an excuse for musicians to have fun. (P.M.)

Critic's Choice: TKoh!

Best Local Label
Justice Records
From a statistical standpoint, the last 24 months at Justice Records have been sluggish, to say the least. Indeed, significant layoffs were the biggest news at the Houston label in the last year. Justice could boast only six CD projects in all of '97, and two of those were a limited-edition EP (Carolyn Wonderland's eloquent bummer of a Christmas greeting, "Blue Lights") and a rerelease (Willie Nelson's 1971 effort Yesterday's Wine). As for 1998, nada so far.

But things might be looking up for Justice -- or so we've been told in so few words. Rumors that a juicy deal is imminent seem to be drifting closer to fact. Theories on what that deal might be have ranged from the possibility of Justice's being absorbed by a major label to its entering a mutually lucrative deal with a mammoth industry player while still maintaining autonomy. Whatever the case, we ought to hear something by summer's end. And judging from preliminary samples of Jesse Dayton's latest material, Justice may have, at the very least, a critical and artistic smash on its hands. If label president Randall Jamail plays his cards right, Justice might turn that into a commercial victory as well. (H.R.)

Critic's Choice: Broken Note

Best CD/Record Store
Cactus Music and Video
Recalling the glory days of music retail -- the era before appliance chains used music as a loss leader -- Cactus Records is a testament to all that is good about a smaller store. "We try to be a music lover's store," says Cactus general manager Quinn Bishop. "We have a commitment to have the best customer service and selection in town."

That commitment has enabled Cactus to be in the midst of what could be its best year ever, according to Bishop. His complaint about chain stores is not that they cut into profit, or devalue music in order to sell dishwashers, but that "it's just not fun, because these chains aren't music-driven. We are able to persevere because our commitment to music comes first."

Hosting frequent in-store performances from local and national artists gives the store a chance to "give something back to our customer base," says Bishop. Rather than viewing the low-key concerts as a way to increase sales, Bishop sees them as a bonus for his clientele.

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