Pianist Mike Wofford is a touchstone for the San Diego jazz community: He provides an impossibly high standard that raises everybody’s game.
In terms of versatility alone, his curriculum vitae cannot be duplicated. He’s played the sensitive accompanist role at the highest level, performing with both Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan; his studio musician credits began with Oliver Nelson and include John Lennon, laurels certainly worth resting on; yet he has also followed his muse into the avant-garde, playing with multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia, and recording with bassist Lisle Ellis, on the iconic Sucker Punch Requiem alongside free-jazz legends Oliver Lake and George Lewis.
Also appearing on that record date is Wofford’s wife, flute virtuoso Holly Hofmann, who blends with Lake like she’d been doing it all of her life. So much for labels, genres and categories.
Wofford and Hofmann are universal musicians who tour constantly but just happen to live in San Diego. The city ought to find a way of working that into its logo.
On Feb. 16, the musical team settled in at the new Croce’s Park West for three sublime sets of jazz at its finest, with double-bass veteran Rob Thorsen and drummer Tim McMahon completing the lineup. Taking their cues from their extremely relaxed leader, an opening blues by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, "Serenade to a Cuckoo," gave the trio sans Hofmann a chance to warm up and stretch out.
It didn’t take long before all of the cylinders were firing.
"I Hear a Rhapsody" burned from Bar 1, as Hofmann, brimming with ideas, weaved bebop filigree with dashes of Eric Dolphy laced into an aggressive statement. Wofford’s touch is amazing -- tasteful is an understatement -- and his deft, in-the-moment harmonic choices are devastatingly hip.
Hofmann is about to release an album that concentrates entirely on the alto flute (Low Life: The Alto Flute Project, due out in April on Capri Records), and her woodshedding on this instrument became obvious when the band took up the seldom heard "When the Sun Comes Out." Hofmann’s sound was dark, voluptuous and lithe, swirling around target tones with appoggiatura as Wofford hung ornaments of bluesy filigree beneath.
Even at the brisk tempo of the post-bop burner "Further Adventures," Wofford’s delivery was never hurried, despite transmitting more information than a high-speed Internet server. Thorsen tore it up with rough-sawn velocity, and McMahon followed with explosive exchanges.
My favorite moment came in the second set, with "How Deep Is the Ocean." Hofmann came out smoking over minimal accompaniment, carving though the changes like a surgeon with a hot date waiting. Wofford toggled between jangling harmonies and cascading single-note lines over Thorsen’s protean bass and the precise ride cymbal pings of McMahon.
You can catch Wofford and Hofmann next time at the San Diego CD release concert for Low Life on May 6, as a part of the Athenaeum Jazz at TSRI series. This show will feature the L.A. heavyweights John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton and Anthony Wilson, who also appear on the album.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.