Occasionally I’ll play Wofford for friends, savvy listeners who, nevertheless, don’t know him. Invariably, I’ll hear, “Who is this guy? He’s fantastic.” It’s surprising how completely he has fallen through the mainstream cracks. With his lean but elegant tone, understated but creative phrasing, and reassuring but advanced chordal sense, Mike Wofford has gone his quiet way for the past 50 or so years, a better jazz pianist than nearly everyone else on the planet. It’s Personal again shows him blending stylistic elements of Bill Evans, Bud Powell and Art Tatum to form to a singular voice.
Like fellow under-appreciated counterpart Claire Fisher, some of this anonymity can be attributed to having spent a lot of time laboring in recording studios, doing other people’s projects. But there’s also a fundamental modesty to the way Wofford plays. He’s got incredible technique, but he delivers it in the least flag-waving way possible. And he finds elements in tunes that are often overlooked. By slowing down Jackie McLean’s “Little Melonae,” he makes it less edgy and more melancholy than most renditions. This gives him opportunities to do more than run the changes. Every line counts, every line is chiseled. “Springsville,” which will be forever associated with the Miles Davis/Gil Evans partnership, is a tour de force. By invoking 13th chords with augmented 11ths, Wofford suggests the airiness of spring. By quoting freely from “If I Should Lose You,” he adds a layer of poignancy. Wofford also strips “Once in a Lifetime” of all its shmaltziness; chords are deliberately kept angular, single note lines are swift and clean and unerringly logical. The beautiful “I Waited for You” is taken from its Brazilian origins in order to become a spacious ballad.
Wofford composes two tribute pieces for It’s Personal — “Cole Porter” and “Hines Catch Up.” The former has a harmonic density and evolved melodic content of some of its namesake’s compositions, and the later works in some left-handed 10ths beneath a blues, but both tunes are about evocation, not slavish mimicry. Maybe best of all is the superb “Nica’s Tempo,” a composition reminiscent of some of Martial Solal’s soundtrack for the Godard film “Breathless.” With an alluring melody and dark chords, the piece lends itself to exploration, and for four all-too-brief minutes, Mike Wofford reels off line after line of stunning improvisation. You sense he could do this stuff all day. He remains at the very top of his very considerable game.