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Take Five With Michael Wolff

AAJ Staff By

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Meet Michael Wolff: Michael Wolff is a genuine hipster—a Manhattan-based family man and internationally acclaimed pianist-composer-bandleader whose late night, blue light singing on Love and Destruction, his tenth album, brings new cool to an inspired selection of rock/pop classics as well as his own tunes about the well-lived life.

A baby boomer in his prime, Wolff is renowned for his jazz roots and his melodically fresh and rhythmically compelling multi-keyboard style. A New Orleans native whose father taught him blues on piano before he began classical lessons at age eight, Michael also grew up in Memphis and Berkeley, California, getting his first significant professional gig when he was nineteen from Latin-jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader. He made his recording debut with Cannonball Adderley's band in 1975 and has worked extensively with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Christian McBride and others, including his late friend Warren Zevon and singer Nancy Wilson, for whom he wrote orchestral arrangements and conducted more than 25 major symphony orchestras during world-wide tours. Taking his talents to television, Wolff became bandleader and musical director for The Arsenio Hall Show, a position held for the five-and-a-half year run of the show.

After the show ended, Wolff jumped back into the jazz scene with a string of highly-regarded recordings. Wolff's band, Impure Thoughts, launched in 2000, is an infectious improvising ensemble featuring Indian tabla player Badal Roy, drummer Mike (Headhunters) Clark, and electric bassist John B. Williams, all of whom appear on Love and Destruction, Wolff's first release on Wrong Records.

Over the course of Love and Destruction, Wolff suggests his kinship to Cohen, Donovan, Jagger, Zevon, Mose Allison, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Fagen and Becker of Steely Dan, and a host of bluesmen—those observers of several sides of life, who admit to few illusions but hold onto a measure of hope if not faith. Featuring a mix of rock and alternative favorites (from The Rolling Stones' "Miss You" to Radiohead's "Everything in its Right Place" to such classics as "Stop! In the Name of Love") the album marks an evolution of Wolff's eclectic sound. He adds, "I've given up on trying to be hip. I'm just being myself," which is the hippest state of all.

Instrument(s): piano, vocals.

Teachers and/or influences? My father, Marvin Wolff, who was an amateur musician with perfect pitch. He was from Indianola, Mississippi and taught me the blues when I was four. I studied jazz piano with Bill Bell, Dick Whittinger, and classical piano with Eleanor Hancock (who recently passed away); and I studied orchestration and composition with Paul Levi and many, many more.

I have been influenced by every musician I have ever heard. It's been said that good composers borrow but great composers steal. I'm a thief!

I knew I wanted to be a musician when... A girl I was too shy to talk to sat next to me on the piano bench when I was playing...

Your sound and approach to music: That's a book! I guess I would say my approach is to keep it moving. I take various influences and filter them through my own point of view—the way painters would each look at a bowl of fruit and paint it in his/her own unique way. I'm just trying to express myself honestly though my music—and trying to bring as many people as I can into jazz by reaching out to a younger audience by playing material that may be more familiar to them.

Anecdote from the road: When I was about twenty-two, I played my first gig with Cannonball. In the middle of the concert he announces, "And now we'd like to feature our new pianist, Mike Wolff, playing with himself," and everyone walked off the stage. I was all alone out there, but I played a solo (don't remember what exactly I played). But after that, at every concert, Cannonball had me play something solo, and then he and I would play a duet together.

Did you know... I can tap dance.

How you use the internet to help your career? I have recently redesigned my website. The goal was to make it easy to use—to make my music accessible and be informative about what's happening. I use Fanmail by JamBase.com to power my e-mail sign ups at the website, and we send out a monthly newsletter. For my most recent CD we added an internet publicist to work the web for us. Most of the advertising and promotion we do is done by e-mail and through the website.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing? To keep jazz alive I think you need 1) an audience that would pay to hear it, and 2) big subsidy—like from the NEA. To keep it growing you'd have to subsidize younger artists, which is being done to some extent. But have the young artist focus on the past only as a means to an end, the end being focusing on creating new music. We need to stop limiting performances to simply a replaying of the music of the past. Jazz today seems rudderless. There is no scene like there was; everyone's into his/her own thing. Luckily though, there are always very talented, creative musicians that keep going. No matter what, they try to create something new.

What is in the near future? I am involved in a family TV show for Nickelodeon called The Naked Brothers Band. My sons, Nat and Alex, star and write all of the songs. My wife, Polly Draper, is the creator, director, writer and producer. I play Nat and Alex's hapless accordion-playing father. I'm also the music producer and co-executive producer. This spring, Wrong Records will release a trio recording I did back in 2001 with John B. Williams on bass and Victor Jones on drums. We're just paying standards on this one. EMI Records in Germany is releasing a compilation CD of two of my CD's, Impure Thoughts and Intoxicate. I continue touring with my band featuring Badal Roy, Mike Clark, Amit Chatterjee and Rich Goods. This summer I'll be playing some trio gigs to promote the album, as we film the second season of The Naked Brothers Band.
About Michael Wolff
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