Correspondence: About Mike Wofford


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Rifftides Washington, DC, correspondent John Birchard has rediscovered pianist Mike Wofford and filed this appreciation:

I've been listening lately to Mike Wofford. I first heard his work on an Epic LP titled Strawberry Wine back in the early 60's and was impressed, especially with a couple of his originals, “Strawberry Wine" and “Three For All." In '67, he did another trio LP, Sure Thing, on Discovery, produced by Albert Marx, that I still have on my LP shelf. In '76, during the brief Scott Joplin revival associated with the movie “The Sting", Bob Thiele produced Scott Joplin Interpretations '76, a Joplin collection by Wofford, Chuck Domanico and Shelly Manne. That album's “A Real Slow Drag" comes highly recommended.

Time passed and I largely forgot about Wofford until I happened to see a CD by him recorded at San Diego's Athenaeum. I listened to it and was immediately a fan all over again. You're probably familiar with it, but he's accompanied by Peter Washington and Victor Lewis - and all three came to play. I love Wofford's version of “My Old Flame", as well as “Take the Coltrane", “Dex-Mex" and Conte Candoli's “Macedonia."

Last week, wanting to hear more Wofford, I bought Holly Hofmann's CD Minor Miracle, which also has Washington and Lewis on bass and drums. A little flute goes a long way with me, but Wofford's work makes the waits worthwhile. He is another of those musicians who have worked with many major figures, absorbed their influences and grown, and whose talent far exceeds their fame. I hope you agree.
-- John Birchard

I agree, heartily. I have had the Strawberry Wine LP since it came out in 1966 and listen to it frequently. Here is a section of the notes I wrote 30 years later for Bud Shank Plays the Music of Bill Evans, which has Wofford, Bob Magnusson and Joe LaBarbera in the rhythm section:

Shank calls Wofford a closet genius, but the pianist hardly keeps his talent under wraps. It is true that his visibility is in low ratio to his ability and the admiration of his peers. He left Los Angeles in the seventies, returned to San Diego and got a degree in philosophy at San Diego State University, but he never stopped working in music. He was Sarah Vaughan's accompanist for two years and Ella Fitzgerald's for four, putting him in a distinguished piano elite that includes Jimmy Rowles, Lou Levy and Tommy Flanagan.

Like virtually every jazz pianist of his generation, Wofford was heavily influence by Bill Evans, a fact of which Shank took note in discussing Wofford's composition “Bill's Vane":

“Wofford was a Bill Evans fan," Shank says, “and for that reason the record was difficult for him. It's hard for piano players influenced by Bill to respect that period of their lives and not be imitators. He didn't want to revert to his Bill Evans period. He wanted to be Mike Wofford, but here he is playing this material he had spent all that time wth 20 years before."

Wofford says, “I think this was some of my best playing."

It was. He didn't imitate Evans and doesn't imitate anyone else. He's been Mike Wofford for a long time.

For a selection of available Wofford CDs, go here.

In the clip below, we catch Wofford and Hoffman dueting at home. The camera operator has trouble finding Wofford during much of his solo, but the audio quality is excellent.

For an extended example of why singers cherish Wofford as an accompanist, you'll find him in this video with the late bassist Andy Simpkins and drummer Harold Jones backing Sarah Vaughan at the 1984 Monterey Jazz Festival. YouTube has prohibited bloggers from embedding the Vaughan Monterey clips, but the site has additional videos of Vaughan's performance with the Wofford trio.

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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
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