I must admit I have difficulty distinguishing new age from new wave from New Zealand. Fusion is not only a thorny problem for Pons and Fleischmann but also for those of us who were once only asked to tell the difference between blues and rock 'n' roll and jazz.

Chip Davis, the brain behind Mannheim Steamroller, has been one of the most successful proponents of this semantic jumble, as his efforts can be listed in several categories, including his two immensely popular Christmas releases. In 1984, Davis admitted he was turning out "Mannheim Steamroller Christmas" to earn a couple of bucks for a project he was going to do in London. The album was a smash, but it was topped four years later by Mannheim Steamroller's blockbuster, "A Fresh Aire Christmas." Both are American Grammaphone releases.Soon after a marriage breakup with Chip, Carol Davis founded Visual Musik Inc., and, like her ex-spouse, Carol has enjoyed success with a holiday effort, "Christmas in Other Places," a release named by Playboy Magazine as its 1988 Christmas Music Pick. The 58-minute album is a suggested Christmas stocking stuffer.

Berklee School of Music product Ric Swanson is the man behind this album - writer, arranger, producer and conductor. There are many positives, but an attempt to cover all bases is a negative. Sure, diversity is fine, but a jarring Swanson autobiographical rap, "Bridge of the Naughty Children," is even more distracting because of the subsequent mellowness of "Tim's Theme" and "Sussex Carol."

"Christmas in Other Places" is pleasant holiday fare and, if local folks don't stock the album, you can write to Visual Musik Inc., 9224 Raven Oaks, Omaha, Neb., 68152, or call 800-426-2334.

While you are at it, "Sounds That Move Air," Neal Davis' "Wind Angels" and guitarist Doug Markley's "Philly Fillet" are worth a listen on Visual Musik.

- NEW RELEASES: George Benson, long a target of crossover taunts, as was Dave Brubeck and others before, has a gentle standards album, "Tenderly" (Warner Bros.), that features sidemen McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, Louis Hays, Herlin Riley, Al Foster and Lenny Castro. There are both vocals and instrumentals, "Stella By Starlight" and "Here, There and Everywhere" being particularly tasty.

Hard-core Pat Metheny fans may blanch at the heavy use of vocal on "Letter from Home" (Geffen Records), but it works, thanks to long-time buddy Lyle Mays, who plays everything but shortstop (piano, organ, accordion, trumpet and synclavier).

Wynton Marsalis has never blown a guttier horn than in "The Majesty of the Blues" (CBS), on which he introduces his new sextet. Marsalis also uses an ensemble, including 64-year-old trumpeter Teddy Riley, a local hero in New Orleans, for the three-part "New Orleans Function:" "The Death of Jazz," "Premature Autopsies" and "Oh, But On the Third Day." "The Majesty of the Blues" is a fine tribute to Marsalis' hometown of New Orleans.

Tenor man Branford Marsalis, the less uptight of the brothers, has an album out that deserves a listen, if only for the "Three Little Words" cut, in which Marsalis, venerable bassist Milton Hinton and Jeff Watts inject an old chestnut with new vitality. In the liner notes, Marsalis gives "a different kind of thanks to Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas and Paul Gonsalves because I can't play like any of them." He is being too modest. The name of the album is "Trio Jeepy" and it is on CBS Records.

- AS A REGULAR FEATURE of this occasional column, I am going to be calling on two buddies at KUER FM90 - Wes Bowen and Steve Williams - for their recommendations of recent releases.

Wes likes "Gene Harris and the Super Band - Live at Town Hall" (Concord). "It's a gas of an album. It swings, it's beautiful, yet funky." Another Concord effort, "Uplate," led by guitarist Jeff Linsky "features superb musicianship," according to Bowen. "It's tasty, laid back." Another of Bowen's blue-chippers is "We Meet Again," with pianists Billy Taylor and Ramsey Lewis. It's on CBS Records.

Steve Williams suggests a Milestone rerelease from 1963, "Solo Sessions, Vol. 1," featuring the late pianist Bill Evans, his last record with legendary producer Orin Keepnews. "He really shows his playing, turning tunes inside out." Williams also endorses Chet Baker's "My Favorite Songs - The Last Great Concert" (ENJA), which was sadly prophetic because the demon-tormented trumpeter died of a fall two weeks after the album's release. "Great jazz standards. Baker was in fine form."

A tribute to the aforementioned Bill Evans by pianist David Benoit - "Waiting for Spring" (GRP Records) - with Emily Remler on guitar is "really nice, especially `My Romance.' "