Top form... As many musicians age, they find themselves pulled back to their roots -- the primal elements of their craft that got them jazzed enough to work 80-hour weeks, travel the country under detestable conditions and, essentially, starve for what they believed in. Well into middle-age, longtime Houstonians ZZ Top have hit that self-evaluative plateau on Rhythmeen, the trio's first CD of original material since 1994's Afterburner. It's due in stores Tuesday, followed this fall by a stripped-down U.S. tour that will feature "no dancing girls, no cars, none of that fancy stuff," says Bob Small of Lone Wolf Productions, the band's management company.

"Here comes another dope fiend, trading up for Rhythmeen," croaks Gibbons in the new CD's groove-singed title track. In its attempts to live up to those pharmaceutical implications, Rhythmeen can be a rather heady elixir, with moves more inspired than any electronically enhanced concoction the band could cook up these days. The 12-tune collection surrenders itself, as usual, to ZZ Top's maestro, Gibbons. But this time, he ditches (mostly) the drum machines and sterling-precision power chords in favor of Frank Beard's real-life -- though at times iffy -- timing and more than a touch of the fire-breathing guitar histrionics that, three decades ago, moved Jimi Hendrix to dub Gibbons one the country's best young players.

From the sound of Rhythmeen -- and from my vantage point near the stage at one of ZZ Top's warm-up gigs last spring at the Urban Art Bar -- Gibbons hasn't let his guitars gather dust during the band's break. Live and in the studio, Gibbons is playing with an ease, fluidity and flash heard only in small spurts since 1981's El Loco. Lest we forget, ZZ Top has seen lengthy amounts of downtime in the past, and it only served to the band's benefit. The 36-month break from recording after 1976's Tejas was followed by what is arguably Top's proudest white-blues moment, Deguello. And while Rhythmeen fails to measure up to those steep standards, it's still a welcome return to the metal-plated blues boogie of its '70s prime.

The only thing lacking on Rhythmeen (and, radio-wise, it's a big thing) is a store of hooks that reach out and grab you. For all his mangy, back-to-basics charm, Gibbons seems to have exhausted his supply of catchy licks. Or maybe that's just not important to him anymore; many -- including Gibbons himself -- would argue that Top was never cut out to be a pop band anyhow.

Another loss... Houston jazz luminary Milt Larkin passed away August 31 at 85. The semi-legendary big bandleader's health had been poor in recent years, and his heart and kidneys were failing at the time of his death.

Originally from Navasota, Larkin failed to gain significant national exposure, but his Houston-based swing bands of the 1930s and '40s were breeding grounds for world-renowned giants such as saxophonists Arnett Cobb and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. When big bands fell out of favor with jazz fans in the early '50s, Larkin moved to New York City, where he was the leader of the Apollo Theatre's house band. By the late '70s, however, Larkin was back in Houston, where he continued to play and bring his music to students and the disadvantaged through various educational programs and nonprofit organizations. In 1990, the Milt Larkin Jazz Society was formed to promote and nurture the genre. Larkin served as its honorary chair, while continuing to perform until Alzheimer's disease and other health problems forced him retire.

"Obviously, he was one of the city's most influential players," says Julia Olivarez, a local jazz performer and honorary member of the Milt Larkin Jazz Society. "He gave a lot of the younger players around here their start."

The society has succeeded in transforming a logistical nightmare into an impressive reality with Saturday's Jazz Jump, a live jazz club crawl in which 15 rooms in and around Montrose will host bands all evening. Transportation between venues will be provided by buses.

Etc.... Has it been 12 months already? Yes, it's another birthday bash for Jerry Lightfoot Saturday at Billy Blues. This year's featured guests include longtime Foot mentor Big Walter "The Thunderbird" Price, veteran blues songwriter Nick Gravenites and Houston classical guitar phenom Susan MacDonald. Call it a couple of hundred years' worth of combined experience -- and energy off the Richter scale. Troubadour storyteller Ellis Paul, whose gift for detailed character analysis bolsters the modest tunes on his Phil/Rounder debut A Carnival of Voices, performs Friday at McGonigel's Mucky Duck. Another songwriter with a knack for nailing his subjects dead on, Rob Carr and his New Jersey band, the Swales, are back for an encore performance at the Urban Art Bar Thursday. If you missed this charming rock-pop quartet when they came to town in March, now's your chance to brush up a little on East Coast white trash culture. Also returning to Houston is the decidedly un-East Coast Reverend Horton Heat. See him at Numbers Tuesday with the equally pungent Voodoo Glow Skulls and Reacharound. Other upcoming shows worth a plug: warm-and-fuzzy female punkers Cub at Mary Jane's Friday; R&B/hip-hop diva MC Lyte at Cafe Echelon and a Trish and Darin reunion at the Satellite Lounge, both Saturday; and ska-core troublemakers Reel Big Fish at Fitzgerald's Tuesday.

-- Hobart Rowland