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2004: The Year in Live Recordings

Looking retrospectively at all the CD's that came my way in 2004, a few patterns emerged. Last month I wrote about several notable jazz guitar albums from this year; today, on the eve of 2005, I'm looking at some of the outstanding live releases of the year now ending. 2004 was a great year for live music old and new, with new releases from the likes of Bob Dorough, Calvin Keys & Mike Wofford, among others, as well as some strong reissued dates from legends like Dexter Gordon and a whole host of bluesmen.

First, the new recordings. Capri Records Ltd. put out an outstanding November, 2003 recording from the Mike Wofford Trio. Live at Athenaeum Jazz. Recorded as part of the jazz series at the Athenaeum Library in San Diego, the fluid pianist Wofford hooks up with a great rhythm section of Victor Lewis on drums and Peter Washington on bass for a set of mostly hard bop that is at once swinging and cerebral. Highlights include their rendition of "Take the Coltrane," "Dex-Mex," Lewis's original tribute to Gordon, and a medley that begins with a solo reading of Leonard Bernstein's "Lucky to Be Me" and segues into a driving trio version of "I'm Just a Lucky So and So."

Bob Dorough may or may not be a familiar name. While he's well known to the thousands of fans that have seen the pianist and singer perform over the years, his clever compositions are known to a generation of Americans who grew up hearing them on the "Schoolhouse Rock" series on ABC. He plays two of the best of those songs and many other numbers on his new Sunday At IridiumCD, recorded at the famed NYC jazz club where he has a weekly gig. I'll tell you, it's a hoot to hear him lead the crowd in "Three Is a Magic Number." The Arbors Records release was recorded on two Sundays in February and April of this year and finds Dorough leading a quartet and hosting a variety of guests. The most notable of these are the Bobettes, a female vocal group patterned after Ray Charles' Raylettes who help out on "Comin' Home Baby" and "Electricity, Electricity." With his wry wit and still-present Arkansas drawl, Dorough comes off like a less-weary Mose Alison. This disc really makes you want to head to the Iridium to see the show in person.

The 2 CD set An Evening with Calvin Keys from LifeForceJazz Records captures for the first time on disc a 1994 concert in Berkeley broadcast locally on radio KJAZ. The inimitable guitarist leads a trio rounded out by bassist Tim Hauf and the late drummer Gaylord Birch through a series of a standards. Keys' playing is the embodiment of tastefulness and grace, never once letting his technique get in the way of telling the story of the song. His playing on "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most," both single-string and chordally, is achingly beautiful. The whole two hours or so of music really amount to a guitar clinic without ever sounding clinical, if you know what I'm saying. Great stuff.

2004 saw the reissue of some fine old recordings as well, with Bopland, Savoy Jazz's three disc recreation of the 1947 Elks Club concert in Los Angeles, standing out in terms of historical importance. The concert, featuring such great players as Dexter Gordon, Barney Kessel and Hampton Hawes was one of the first manifestations of bop on the West Coast; a full review can be read here.

The second half of Windows, Concord Records' two CD reissue of Marian McPartland dates from the 1970s, find Marian in fine form at the 1979 Concord Jazz Festival. Originally issued in 1980 as At The Festival, the disc starts with a swinging trio version of Cole Porter's "I Love You" and six other standards including the Chick Corea composition that gives the new package its name. Marian's lone original composition on the set is the tender ballad "In The Days Of Our Love," highlighted by her lovely solo piano introduction.

A pair of DVD'S released by Reeling the Years Productions qualify as must-have items for blues aficionados. Blues Legends: Memphis Slim & Sonny Boy Williamson Live in Europe features great performances from the 1960s recorded before a studio audience for European television; also included is a bonus segment with the legendary pianist Otis Spann from the 1960 Newport Folk Festival. Memphis Slim's performance is musically stunning, highlighted by the great fretwork of Matt "Guitar" Murphy and the exchange between Slim and Willie Dixon on "Rockin' the House." As for Sonny Boy, well, if you've never seen his leering, satyr-like visage singing and blowing harmonica, let's just say you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.

Williamson also makes an appearance on the third volume of The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1969 series, as do a who's-who of the genre: Buddy Guy, Skip James, Bukka White, T Bone Walker, Muddy Waters and Koko Taylor. Guy and others including drummer Fred Below--I always wondered what he looked like--accompany Big Mama Thornton on a rollicking version of "Hound Dog" that you can play for your friends who still think that Elvis (or perhaps Col. Tom Parker) wrote it.

2004 saw the release of many great live recordings. Some were new, others were long missing documents rightly restored for a new generation. Let's hope we'll see more of the same in '05.

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