The Master Touch of Mike Wofford

Jazz legend Mike Wofford joins Gilbert Castellanos and Mackenzie Leighton.

The Plaza Bar at the Westgate Hotel in downtown San Diego is frequently the only place to be for dedicated jazz fans on any given Friday night. That’s when trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos collaborates with an intimate, revolving cast of trio associates for a night of improvised exchange and deep listening.

It’s always special, but any time that piano legend Mike Wofford is involved, the potential for magic grows exponentially. Such was the case on Sept. 23, when Castellanos, Wofford and young double-bass phenomenon Mackenzie Leighton performed; all three embracing the jazz canon with daring expertise.

First up was Wynton Kelley’s “Blues by Five,” where Castellanos and Wofford enjoyed the protean pulse of Leighton for its inerrant groove component -- Wofford has a patient ingenuity that supports multiple choruses of joyfully hip discourse; while the trumpeter was all about the exquisite possibilities of mid-tempo swing.

A short piano intro into “Alone Together,” set the stage for some dramatically expressive half-valve smears and other bluesy accoutrement like the single held-tone over several modulations skillfully deployed from Castellanos, and it was enjoyable to witness Leighton carve out several potent and economical contributions to the mix. Meanwhile, back on Planet Groove, Wofford’s exultant soliloquy lifted each phrase and harmonic motif into real currency.

Leighton led off the round-robin of commentary on “Lullaby of the Leaves” with a full chorus of meaty Percy Heath-isms, which Wofford extrapolated into a polymath display of catholic harmonies and inter-connective ideas, while Castellanos, trumpet in one hand, flugelhorn in the other engaged in a rich call-and-response with himself that managed to quote different parts of “Laura,” on both instruments.

The trumpeter sat out on Wofford’s feature, the Sonny Clark masterpiece “Melody in C,” supported by Leighton’s pulse, which was buoyant enough to float a battleship. The pianist somehow connected portions of “Cheek to Cheek” with “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” as if it were the most natural thing in the world, then tossed casually to the bassist, who managed to extend the Wofford mojo into his own solo.

The first set concluded in regal fashion, with an in-depth exploration on Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood,” full of intimate and resilient dialog, imbued perhaps, with a touch of star-crossed fealty.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @robertbushjazz. Visit The World According to Rob.

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