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A Good Year for Jazz Guitar

Ah...late fall, when a music critic's thoughts turn to Best of the Year lists. I think it may be just a little premature to write a top ten article just yet, but what I do intend to discuss here is the bumper crop of fine jazz guitar albums that have crossed my desk in 2004. These include worthy offerings from grizzled veterans and recordings by talented newcomers alike. Where appropriate, links are included to reviews of individual titles and homepages for artists and labels discussed herein.

Let's start with one of the better known names on this list. One of the year's outstanding releases regardless of instrumentation is Larry Coryell's latest CD Tricycles on the Favored Nations Cool label. This outstanding album is an engaging mix of straight-ahead jazz with a couple of fusion numbers; even the most blue-nosed purist has to give Coryell his due on this one. Run by guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, it should be no surprise that Favored Nations Cool is responsible for other titles on this list as well. Novecento's Dreams of Peace features some fine playing in a full band context by Stanley Jordan. Mimi Fox is not a name that I was familiar with prior to hearing She's the Woman, but she would appear to have an extremely bright future ahead of her; what a fine player she is.

Another label devoted to guitar music is Tone Center. Notable releases on this label include the fusion supergroup Jing Chi's 3D featuring Robben Ford, the all-star, all-guitar tribute to John Coltrane A Guitar Supreme: Giant Steps in Fusion Guitar, and the latest release from Steve Smith's Vital Information, Come On In with Frank Gambale on guitar. Gambale's virtuoso playing also informs To The Stars, the latest release from the Chick Corea Elektric Band on the Concord/Stretch label.

A fine young guitarist named Eric Hofbauer appears on a pair of recordings from the Creative Nation Music Productions label. The eponymous release from his group The Blueprint Project is another album on my shortlist of the year's finest recordings across the board and has the added treat of featuring the too-often overlooked bassist Cecil McBee. A sister release is the solo guitar outing American Vanity, a fun and idiosyncratic meditation on the titular subject, mixing originals with clever arrangements of pieces from such diverse sources as Charles Mingus, Lou Reed, Waylon Jennings, Erik Satie and the 1980s one-hit wonder A-Ha (arranged in the order of how much sense they make to me in the given context).

Blueprint Project drummer Matt Wilson shows up on another notable guitar date, Rick Stone's elegant Samba de Novembro on Jazzand. This straight-ahead date marks the guitarist's first date as a leader in a decade and is roughly split between originals and standards; of the later group, one standout is the groups deft reading of Monk's "Played Twice." Stone's playing is a bit reminiscent of Kenny Burrell; his tone is warm and clean and the blues never seem too far away from what he is doing. A fine, be-bop oriented album jazz guitar album is A Jamais from Joshua Breakstone on Capri.

In This Present Moment... is the bandleading debut from Orange County, CA based guitarist Matthew Von Doran on the B Cat Records label. A fine contemporary jazz release produced by Yellowjackets/Jing Chi bassist Jimmy Haslip, the album's many noteworthy contributors include Larry Goldings on organ, drummer Peter Erskine, bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz and Roger Burn, whose group Shapes also features Van Doran, on vibes. Among the album's standout tracks are the somewhat Monkian "Measure Once" and the slinky "Trick" which finds Van Doran playing a unique, 11 string nylon fretless guitar atop a great groove from Erskine & Oleszkiewicz.

Hot Club of San Francisco guitarist Josh Workman's Jumpin' at the Border on Tetrachord is an engaging mix of styles. There is plenty of Django influenced gypsy jazz as you would expect, along with the blues, bebop, sounds of Brazil and everything else. Among the album's best cuts are the reworking of the early Miles Davis composition "Sippin' at Bells" and the handful of tracks featuring vocalist Kim Nalley.

As we head down the homestretch of 2004, it's clear that the year has provided a bumper crop of jazz guitar releases. And the year's not even done yet! I tell you, I can't keep up....

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  • Artist / Group Name: Various Artists
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