Michael Wolff: The Art of Communication
The idea of music as communication is as old as music itself, and has become just about as clichéd as some of its referents. Igor Stravinsky once opined that music was powerless to communicate anything. And, truth be told, the number of active instrumentalists who can successfully communicate thoughts, feelings, concepts and dogmas without words is significantly smaller than the number of those who believe they can. Even many vocalists and lyricists aren't as adept at getting things across as they would like to imagine. Enter Michael Wolff, who has spent half a lifetime challenging the notion that music is mute.
Wolff boasts a most interesting pedigree. He claims New Orleans as his hometown, although he was born a military brat in the Air Force town of Victorville, California. His father hailed from Indianola, Mississippi, so you can guess the blues was a big part of Michael's musical upbringing. After much formal study of piano, jazz, and composition, Wolff moved to New York City, where the pro work was, and maintains his home today in Manhattan. For the past several years he has made richly brocaded modern jazz with his unique ensemble, Impure Thoughts, alongside partners like tabla player Badal Roy, percussionists Amit Chatterjee and Frank Colón, saxophonist Alex Foster, drummers Mike Clark and Victor Jones, and bassist John B. Williams. The last two men grace one of Wolff's latest achievements, the fine trio album jazz, JAZZ, jazz (Wrong Records). Williams and Clark also had a hand in the pianist's groundbreaking Love and Destruction (Wrong Records), which places Wolff's vocals, arranging and composing up front.
One of Michael's first professional gigs was with Cal Tjader's band. In 1975 he joined Cannonball Adderley, following in the footsteps of giants like Joe Zawinul. He loves to tell the tale of his first gig with Adderley, who threw the pianist a ringer by announcing that he was going to "play with himself. "Cannon and the rest of the band left the stage, and I had to fumble my way through something. I still can't remember what it was! But from then on, Cannonball always gave me some solo space. And we played a lot of really wonderful duets together. He was an incredible man and an incredible musician, and I learned a lot from that time in my life. He also spent a few high-profile years as the musical director for The Arsenio Hall Show, where Wolff was able to indulge his keen wit and fun-loving spirit with the host.
A wide array of musical concepts has communicated to Wolff over the past thirty-odd years, and he has a good time interweaving them in his compositions and performances. The presence of Badal Roy and Frank Colón has given Impure Thoughts a remarkable global savor, with Indian and Latin rhythms bouncing off one another when they're not melding seamlessly. But Wolff is quick to point out that their rhythms aren't always based on traditions. "I love playing with Badal because he has such an improvisational mind. What he plays isn't from the standard book of Indian rhythms; he's very jazz-minded and flexible, although he certainly knows about the traditions and can apply them. In the context of Impure Thoughts he is an ideal partner because he makes his instruments work in whatever mold we're operating in at a particular moment. Wolff's understanding that music is a universal mode of communication has contributed to the success of Impure Thoughts as one of the most entertaining, thought-provoking bands in recent memory, completely transcending the usual stale ideas of "world music.
Impure Thoughts is currently on hold, though definitely not disbanded. Wolff has recently advanced his ideas of communication with the two new releases on Wrong Records. Recorded in leftover studio time after Impure Thoughts' Intoxicate session in 2001, jazz, JAZZ, jazz captures Wolff, John B. Williams and Victor Jones in a pure jazz mood. "We started off just killing time, in a way, to use up the extra time we had booked. As we play through some of the songs, you'll notice that we drop pieces of the melodies here and there. That was because we're so familiar with things like 'Autumn Leaves' and 'My Funny Valentine,' we felt like we didn't need to say some things. It's like when you're talking with someone you know about a subject you're both familiar with. You can skip over saying certain things that you know you both understand. With jazz, JAZZ, jazz we knew that anyone who would pick up this album would already be a jazz fan, and they would already be familiar with a lot of the tunes on it. In the studio we decided to do something different with each of them and just have fun.