By John Lawrence
San Diego jazz musician Mike Wofford is best known for having been the accompanist for Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. He also was one of the promulgators of the west coast cool jazz sound, having played with the likes of Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne at the Hermosa Beach Lighthouse in the 1950s and 60s and later at Shelly’s club, the Manne-Hole, on North Cahuenga Blvd in Hollywood.
His current offering “It’s Personal” honors his wife, jazz flutist Holly Hofmann, who has been a major force in the presentation of jazz in San Diego for over two decades as well as, in my opinion, the best jazz flutist playing today. This album contains four originals by Mike and eight tunes from the jazz lexicon that are not often heard. This gives the album a fresh and vital quality which adds to the overall atmosphere of elegance, a Mike Wofford trademark. The time signatures are relaxed; the improvisations meld seamlessly with the tune statements, and the music flows effortlessly and creatively making this one of the best jazz albums of 2013.
Mike acknowledges his predecessors at the jazz piano such as Jimmy Rowles and Earl “Fatha” Hines, the latter of which is honored with the only blues on the album, titled “Hines Catch-Up” (a play on words – Heinz Ketchup anyone?). Although unacknowledged as an influence on his website, this album reminds me very much of Tommy Flanagan’s album “Jazz Poet.” Mike is not only a poet as well but a wizard who manifests the accumulated wisdom of a lifetime as a jazz artist. He respects the jazz tradition without being bound by it.
There is a feeling of serenity and peacefulness on this album which is guaranteed to reduce your stress level. It is an antidote to the freneticism of current popular music culture, a respite and a refuge for all who are willing to open their doors of perception and walk in.
Single note lines predominate accompanied by unobtrusive chords executed with a light touch. This album can and should be listened to intently, but it also could be the most sophisticated accompaniment to an intelligent conversation or an art gallery visit. It is never intrusive or demanding but is there to be savored by those desiring a richly rewarding experience. The album’s impressionistic quality would be a perfect complement to a viewing of the Impressionists at the Musee d’Orsay for instance.
Rather than taking the route of esteemed jazz pianist Bill Evans, who polished and honed the same tunes from the Great American Songbook for most of his life or even that of Keith Jarrett, who with his Standards Trio has touched base with these same tunes before launching an exploration of his own, Mike has chosen to include relatively obscure tunes by mostly well known jazz composers. This has contributed to an album of remarkable uniqueness and eloquence while at the same time maintaining the highest esthetic standards of integrity and beauty.
Tunes such as “I waited for You” by Dizzy Gillespie and Gil Fuller are representative of the major jazz composers included here. Mike’s improvisation and tune statement on this track and throughout the album are exquisite. It is music that can be listened to multiple times with new vistas opening up on repeated listenings. This is the hallmark of a great jazz album.
“Springsville” by Johnny Carisi was recorded by Miles Davis on his Miles Ahead album with arrangements by Gil Evans. Carisi’s better known composition, “Israel” was recorded by Miles on his “Birth of the Cool” album and has become a jazz standard, deservedly so. Mike hearkens back to his west coast cool jazz roots with this track.
“Nica’s Tempo” composed by Gigi Gryce is not to be confused with the more often heard “Nica’s Dream” composed by Horace Silver. Both tunes honor the jazz baronness, Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who became a jazz fan after hearing Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” and almost singlehandedly kept Monk’s career (and life for that matter) afloat after he lost his cabaret card and couldn’t perform in New York City jazz clubs. As usual Mike has taken the road less traveled by with this tune selection.
The only selection on the album that is not to my personal taste is “Once in a Lifetime” a compilation of two tunes which both happen to have the same name. The first “Once in a Lifetime” is a little too poppish for me and the second is by the Talking Heads, a band that was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. Need I say more? However, it shows Mike’s willingness to venture into waters that are not for the fainthearted like myself. I would rather have heard Mike’s version of “Lament” which was on Tommy Flanagan’s “Jazz Poet” album.
The last tune on the album “No More” was recorded by Billie Holiday in 1944 and seldom heard since. Mike does a masterful job leaving me loving his interpretation but wondering what I just heard. Having listened to this tune again and again I still couldn’t whistle it for you. That’s the genius of Mike’s artistry. You love it but you end up wondering what it was you just heard. Original, creative but rooted in the jazz tradition, Mike’s playing leaves other better known jazz pianists in the dust. This album has the easygoing quality of Zoot Sims’ later albums, understated, relaxed, confident in the jazz tradition but still reaching for the stars.
Sit back, relax and let this music wash over you. You’ll be glad that you did and be better for it.
A final word: The recording by Peter Sprague at the Spragueland studio is excellent. Peter, a world class guitarist in his own right, is also an award winning recording engineer, mentor and producer for other artists’ albums. Together with Mike’s wife, flutist and presenter, Holly Hofmann, the three of them form the nexus of jazz in San Diego. They are resources to be treasured and celebrated, and lucky San Diegans can see them perform in person locally as well as hearing their albums in their own living rooms. Please take advantage of this wonderful music.