With the recent passing of the drummer and bandleader Art Taylor and Connie Kay's death several months ago, the jazz world is left with precious few of its percussion mandarins--those innovative and influential drummers who helped reshape the music in the 1950s, when jazz began to build upon the discoveries of bebop. For that reason, such still-vital drummers as Max Roach, Roy Haynes, and Ed Thigpen take on added importance as eyewitnesses to the history of their art. But don't confuse longevity with museum mustiness. Thigpen, for example, remains a sprightly musical conversationalist, peppering a performance with tasteful commentary, and an authoritative leader, whether whispering a tempo on the brushes or exploding it with barrages a la Art Blakey. In the fifth decade of his jazz career, Thigpen epitomizes the pure mechanics of jazz drumming and adds to that a far-ranging musical curiosity: this results in a style filled with crisp denotations and flurrying side comments, occasional undercurrents of Africa and the West Indies, subtle melodic insertions, and a kit bag of primary colors and nuanced shadings. In Chicago Thigpen will hook up with a band he might well like to call his own. It includes the unflappable Marlene Rosenberg on bass and the expansive pianist Willie Pickens (who, as a member of Elvin Jones's band, is no stranger to drummer-led groups). Perhaps best of all, Thigpen will feature saxophonist Eric Schneider, whose top-notch jazz gigs are too few and far between for my taste. Friday through Sunday, Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase, Blackstone Hotel, 636 S. Michigan; 427-4846.