A Jazzy San Diego Weekend: Two Worlds Merged Rather Than Collided

Holly Hofmann and Mike Wofford seated behind a piano

Flute Fusion with Holly Hofmann and Beth Ross-Buckley; Jazz @ the Jacobs with Gregory Porter

By John Lawrence

A packed house at the Mingei Museum in Balboa Park was treated to a flute duo billed as Flute Fusion featuring Holly Hofmann, inveterate jazz flautist and promoter, along with Beth Ross-Buckley, classical flautist and promoter. Both Holly and Beth have been long time music presenters in San Diego. Holly started at the Horton Grand and had a memorable gig for many years at the San Diego Museum of Art. Beth started a chamber music group called Camarada in 1994. This night they joined forces.

They were backed by a jazz rhythm section composed of Holly’s husband, Mike Wofford on piano, Gunnar Biggs, bass, Duncan Moore, drums and Jim Plank, who spanned both jazz and classical worlds, on vibes. My friends, Anna and Rich, accompanied me and were impressed by the quality of the musical offerings.

Holly has never played better, digging in with her trademarked ability to swing and her proficiency on both the standard C flute as well as

her specialty, the alto flute, on which she recorded her latest standout CD, Low Life. On her foray into the jazz world classical flautist Beth Ross Buckley deserves much credit for her courageousness. She took an improvised solo on Thelma Blue, dedicated to her late mother, for the first time before a public audience and did just fine with a kind assist from Holly who adjusted her microphone so we all could hear. It isn’t easy for a classically trained musician to start improvising. They can read anything you set in front of them, but improvising? That’s a whole new world.

The tune selection was superb. They did Antonio Carlos Jobim’s How Insensitive, a lilting Bossa Nova tune by the Brazilian composer. Mike Wofford either arranged or composed most of the tunes. Lee Morgan’s Ceora, a beautifully poignant melody, evoked memories of the jazz great who died tragically at a young age when he was murdered on the bandstand by an ex lover.

One of his tunes, The Sidewinder, written on a piece of toilet paper during a break in a recording session, became the second most listened to jazz standard of all time right behind Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Unfortunately, Morgan was also a heroin addict and lost years of what could have been career building productivity to the habit.

Saturday night, in the culmination of the Jazz @the Jacobs series @ Symphony Hall, jazz vocalist Gregory Porter and his band were featured along with an opening set by curator and trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos. Gilbert was in fine embouchure as usual and he was backed up by the becoming legendary Marshall Hawkins on bass and pianist, local guy, Joshua White on piano. My initial reaction was “Where’s the drummer?” Guess none was available for this particular occasion.

After what seemed like an interminable 20 minute break, out came Gregory Porter, a former football player at San Diego State. Who says San Diego doesn’t have jazz talent? Locals guys and gals know how to play, what to play, when to play, but as Hal Crook once said, it’s a bitch figuring out where to play.

Gregory Porter

Porter won the 2014 Grammy for best jazz vocal album, Liquid Spirit. The New York Times described Porter as “a jazz singer of thrilling presence, a booming baritone with a gift for earthy refinement and soaring uplift” in its review of Liquid Spirit. His just released album Take Me To the Alley reflects his mother’s avocation as an advocate for the homeless and the downtrodden as opposed to the Take Me to the Penthouse penchant of so many who ignore the plights of the less fortunate.

As a singer songwriter, Porter can write poetically. All the tunes performed except one were written by him which contributed to a sameness that could have been overcome by throwing in a few more compositions by others. Porter has a powerful, almost operatic voice and sings with a lot of soulfulness. The melodies he constructs, however, are not memorable or hummable; they all have a sing-songy similarity which seems to be par for the course in popular music these days. Where are the Irving Berlins and Cole Porters for whom melody was the most important aspect of being a composer?

And about that hat that he’s never without: In a 2012 interview with Jazzweekley.com he explained why he started wearing it: “I’ve had some surgery on my skin, so this has been my look for a little while and will continue to be for awhile longer.

His backup band was excellent with tremendous sax and bass work. The concert, however, went on too long. The opening set, the 20 minute break and then Porter’s portion took the evening’s festivities, which started at 8 PM well past 10 o’clock. The cramped up seats at Symphony Hall, as bad as any airplane’s, got to me after two hours, and finally I had to get up and leave before the concert was over.

It was announced to everyone’s delight that the Jazz@the Jacobs program would continue in the fall starting with the Count Basie (tribute) Orchestra in a tribute to Frank Sinatra featuring Jane Monheit and Dave Damiani. Whew, that should be a knockout! That would be followed in 2017 by a salute to West Coast Jazz. The third in the series is dedicated to Women in Jazz featuring none other than flute virtuoso, Holly Hofmann herself, along with other well known jazz women.

Album cover for Holly Hofmann's "Low Life"Jazz at Symphony Hall is a good thing. Finally, the jazz world and the classical world are speaking to each other as last weekend’s festivities demonstrate. As Duke Ellington said, “There are only two kinds of music—good music and bad music,” regardless of how it’s labeled.

There is so much bad music out there that jazz and classical are finally teamed up together in providing music that is palatable to the audience that has even a modicum of taste and musical sophistication. It needs to be applauded, supported and preserved.

Saturday evening’s jazz and blues at Symphony Hall and Sunday’s merging of jazz and classical at the Mingei Museum are a huge step in the right direction combining the best of both worlds. My friends, Anna and Rich, picked up a copy of Holly Hofmann’s Low Life CD on the way out on my recommendation. I’m sure they enjoyed it after they got home.