Considering that Mike Wofford spent periods as accompanist for hugely melodic singers Ella Fitzgerald and June Christy, it’s surprising how much parts of his new solo piano release, It’s Personal, sound more like Keith Jarrett than Bill Miller.
Particularly on his own compositions, the longtime San Diegan eschews the linear for the exploratory and experimental. Given his rich knowledge of musical structure, his forays are always fascinating. And unlike many jazz soloists who came of age when the big bands still held a certain sway over the music (if not the best-seller lists) and who will work all kinds of famous melodic figures into their solos, Wofford avoids all gimmickry. He explores all facets of the theme at hand: riffing off the melody, off the harmony, then combining all of it into something new before coming back again.
It’s also interesting how co-equal his two hands are – again, perhaps, due to most of his career as a jazz pianist having been spent in a supporting role behind a singer or featured soloist, rather than defining the melodic theme. Often the feel here – say, on Ellington and Strayhorn’s “The Eighth Veil” – is of a man accompanying himself, his right hand gently laying out the melody while his left hand comps some harmonic support a few octaves down.
There’s none of the boisterousness one often finds in a solo jazz piano setting – where a W.C. Handy or Oscar Peterson could sound like a full band. While a piano is one of the few acoustic instruments that can hold the attention of a full room (whether a crowded bar or stately symphonic hall), Wofford disavows bombast completely. Like a sports coach who knows that the quieter he speaks the more his players have to pay attention, Wofford’s introspective solos draw us in through their quietude.
While the reward for the careful listener is playing, which is consistently brilliant, there is a bit of sameness to the tempos and arrangements. Most of the songs are played with a similar approach (bringing us back to the Jarrett comparison, as he also often lacks any variation to his tempos), and it may be a challenge for some fans to listen through the entire CD in a single sitting.
But outside his 1992 Maybeck Recital Hall recording (sadly out of print), this is the only fully solo outing by one of the premier jazz pianists of our time. In spite of any perceived imperfections (wholly subjective on the part of a single listener), this is an important jazz album and one local fans will want to check out.