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It's Personal
Mike Wofford

If it's true that you are judged by the company you keep, then pianist Mike Wofford gets high marks for his past associations with such jazz luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Benny Carter, Stan Getz, and Shelly Manne, among others. Wofford has also led a number of sessions, some sadly no longer readily available, his most recent being the much-praised Turn Signal with his wife, flutist Holly Hofmann, and trumpeter Terell Stafford. This time around Wofford goes it alone, and those who enjoyed his 1992 contribution to the revered Maybeck Recital Hall solo jazz piano series (#18) will be pleased to learn that It's Personal may be even better. Wofford's incisive piano navigates a refreshing series of tunes, from his own distinctive originals to compositions by the likes of Jackie McLean, Ellington/Strayhorn, Johnny Carisi, Dizzy Gillespie/Gil Fuller, Gigi Gryce, and even the Talking Heads.

You are immediately struck by the presence and clarity of Wofford's piano sound (kudos to engineer/guitarist Peter Sprague) as he explores McLean's enduring "Little Melonae." His sparkling runs, varied dynamics, and always complementary left-hand accentuations and counter lines are but a few ingredients in this fervent and wide-ranging treatment. Written for Hofmann, the melody of "It's Personal" has a gentle beauty that is elevated by the pianist's harmonic enhancements, and the depth of his solo leaves a lasting impression on the listener. "Cole Porter" is Wofford's tribute to the great composer/lyricist. An intricately textured piece, it is perhaps more notable for its harmonies rather than its melody. The notes and forceful chords fly by rapidly in Wofford's spiraling, transfixing improvisation. The Ellington/Strayhorn work, "The Eight Veil," loses its original up-tempo Latin character to be completely reborn as a reflective, heartfelt ballad in Wofford's interpretation. It still sounds like something Duke and Billy would have composed, but now aches for a good set of lyrics thanks to Wofford's brilliant makeover.

Wofford's "Spin" has a rhythmic thrust and whirlwind melodic line that bring to mind Chick Corea. He plays off a thematic motif in inventive fashion during his engaging solo, but this 2:59 diversion appears to be only starting to build up steam when it regrettably ends. Gillespie/Fuller's oft-played classic ballad "I Waited For You" is taken at just the right tempo and with caring delineation by Wofford. One notices the grace and richness of the pianist's left-hand bass lines as they interact with his alluring arpeggios and overall sustained lyrical elaboration. Carisi's intriguing and challenging "Springsville" (recorded by Miles Davis with Gil Evans) warrants deep probing, and Wofford's up to the task, with deliberation and effective use of space. Guitarist Larry Koonse's "Candle" is introduced by a dramatic, repeated single note alongside a contrasting, intermittent higher one, leading to a contemplative theme that retains the impact and nature of Wofford's opening. His moving development does not stray too far and soon culminates in the pleasing resolution of the reprise.

Wofford's take on the theme of Gryce's "Nica's Tempo" is so resolute and powerful as to somehow evoke a quintet in action, and yet his subsequent improv takes on a refinement of line and sound that is as charming initially as it is lively in its further progression. Besides having an exceptionally clever title, "Hines Catch-Up," Wofford's tribute to Earl Hines, who he describes as having "almost single-handedly created modern jazz piano," draws knowingly upon Hines' style, with striding left-hand figures, quicksilver jabbing runs, a profound blues sensibility, and an overriding orchestral vision. For "Once in a Lifetime," Wofford brings together the two identically named tunes by Newley/Bricusse and the members of the Talking Heads. He plays the older one first, with the flair Anthony Newley exhibited when singing it, his solo prancing through extended phrasings that alternate with robust chordal structures. A brief pause precedes the rollicking Talking Heads theme and a darker, rumbling lower octaves exploration with a more insistent rhythmic pulse. "No More" is the Tutti Camarata song linked with Billie Holiday, but first introduced to Wofford by Irene Kral. Wofford's respectful, polished rendition utilizes deeply resonant voicings, spacing, and the expected deliberate pace to create an emotional payoff without the aid of the unsparing lyrics.

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Scott Albin