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Warren Wolf: Reincarnated


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I truly believe that the only way that music can continue on is if you have people like myself and others that are open to teaching and sharing the knowledge that we have.
—Warren Wolf
Warren Wolf is a Baltimore-born vibraphonist and a member of the SFJAZZ Collective. Reincarnation (2020), his fourth album as leader on Mack Avenue Records, sees Wolf dive into an entirely different side of his musical personality. We got together via ZOOM to talk about his musical influences, how he's staying creative during the COVID pandemic and his new album.

All About Jazz: Were you born and raised in Baltimore?

Warren Wolf: Yes, Baltimore is home! I grew up in a really rough part of Baltimore and in order to keep me straight and away from trouble my after-school activities consisted of practicing music. I'd come home from school, watch television for a while but as soon as 5:30pm came around I automatically knew it was time to go down in the basement to practice. I would typically practice from 5:30pm until 7pm, five days a week. I would spend 30 minutes practicing each instrument, so 30 minutes on the vibraphone or marimba, 30 minutes on the piano or on keyboard studies and the other 30 minutes on drums. This continued even when I was taking lessons at Peabody Conservatory where I studied with Leo LePage who was a member of the Baltimore City Orchestra for I believe 25-30 years. I was also taking lessons at Peabody Preparatory on Saturday mornings. I had six days of formal music education along with the basic music education that I got at school but I was honestly learning more at home. I did this from the age of three up until I was 17 years old and this included summers. In summertimes my rehearsals actually doubled. My father is a Vietnam veteran so he was pretty strict.

After high school I moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music. I attended Berklee from September of 1997 until May 2001. When I finished, I stayed in Boston for another three years moving back to Baltimore in 2004.

AAJ:If you had to introduce yourself through music by five albums that you are not a part of which five albums would they be?

WW: Miles Smiles by Miles Davis, Gold Experience by Prince -he has a song titled "Eye Hate You" on there and I love that song! Sweet Love by Anita Baker, D'Angelo's Voodoo album, Snoop Dog's Doggystyle album and if I could sneak in one more it would be 2Pac's All Eyes On Me. I named these particular records because I feel like every single track on these albums are just masterpieces.

AAJ: How did you develop your love for music and what were you listening to growing up in your formative years?

WW: The majority of what I listened to growing up is soul music, hardcore hip-hop, jazz music and Motown so all of that music had an impact on me. My parents grew up in the whole Motown era so of course I heard that in the house a lot. I also have two older sisters and they always played a lot stuff like New Edition, so I had combination of old and new school blending together to help form my personal taste in music.

My father was played a lot of Stanley Turrentine, Anita Baker, Yellowjackets, Spyro Gyra and all of those type of groups. I was definitely getting a mixture of influences. Once I actually started developing my own choice of music I was listening to a lot of early Run DMC and LL Cool J.

When the 90's came around I started taking music a little more seriously. In the mid 90's, I was still in Baltimore but if you went off of the music I listened to and the way that I dressed there's no way you could have told me that I wasn't from the west coast (laughs)! In high school, I used to wear plaid shirts with heavily creased jeans... yeah, I had he whole Death Row Music look! And actually when you go back and revisit the music from that era you hear a lot of George Clinton samples so I was getting an introduction to P-Funk music and didn't even realize it.

Around this time my father realized how serious I was getting about playing my own music so he got me into listening to a bunch of classical composers like Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Vivaldi, Stravinsky. He got me into jazz at the same time so we started checking out Milt Jackson, Charlie Parker and artists like that. I definitely had a lot of different styles of music in my ears that just stuck with me.

AAJ: I know that you play a lot of different instruments but how did the vibraphone become your instrument of choice?

WW: My dad was a history teacher in the Baltimore City schools. He taught United States and World history. On the side he had his own band (Wolf Pac). They played a lot of the same music that my father used to listen to around the house. They did gigs at a lot of the clubs and jazz spots right here in Baltimore and in Washington DC. My father was always a fan of hand percussions and as soon as he learned he was having a son he knew he wanted to get me into music. My dad was a big fan of Roy Ayers and Bobby Hutcherson so he decided to buy a vibraphone sometime in the late 70's; I was born in November of 1979 and all these things combined and pretty much put me on my path to playing the vibraphone. My father and his band used to rehearse at our house on the weekends and I would come down and listen to what they were playing and pretty much just soaked everything in.

AAJ: I saw on your instagram account (@warrenwolf1) that you recently picked up a rain stick and a didgeridoo, how are you coming along with those?

WW: It's been fun so far! With the didgeridoo I honestly just thought that you blew into it and it would make some noise. After watching some videos on them on YouTube I realized that there's a lot of different things that you can do with them. The whole purpose of me getting these instruments was to help me deal with the times that we are in now with the whole COVID -19 pandemic. I want to try to stay creative and make some different types of music and having different percussion effects can easily help me with that.

AAJ: What are some of the things that you are doing to stay busy during COVID-19?

WW: The hard thing for me right now with the whole social distancing thing is actually trying to stay creative. I have plenty of friends right here in the Baltimore area who actually want to play but we are all taking the safe precautions of not going to each other's homes so right now I'm just practicing by doing a bunch of backing tracks on YouTube whether it's jazz, hip hop or r&b but it's just not the same as actually playing live.

I'm also an educator and I'm currently employed at the Peabody Conservatory which is a part of John Hopkins University and I work at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as well and with that I'm currently teaching 30-minute weekly lessons for a lot of the students. I also have people that reach out to me online and on social media so I've been offering lessons that way as well. I have one regular student that lives in Germany and we meet up online for lessons every Saturday and we've been doing this for about a month now. I try to average at least two or three lessons per day. I love sharing my passion and knowledge of music so anyone out there that may be interested in lessons can reach out to me at: warren wolf.com. I truly believe that the only way that music can continue on is if you have people like myself and others that are open to teaching and sharing the knowledge that we have. I have had plenty of good teachers in my life and I'd be doing them a disservice if I let all of their knowledge end with me.

AAJ: Have you thought about what you want to do as soon as this pandemic is over?

WW: I just want to travel somewhere. I'm usually never home for more than two weeks at a time even if I'm just away for a day or two. It's kind of weird for me to be at home for this long of a period of time but at the same time it's also pretty cool because it gives me time to be at home and spend time with my family. It's nice to be at home and actually spend time with the kids and they're not asking "where's daddy?."

I'm also eager to just hangout at one of the jazz clubs around town. That's something that I do quite often even if I'm not sitting in on a set. I like to just go and see who's playing and what type of music people are vibing out to and just congregate with people. I miss doing that and just experiencing live music in person. I know right now everybody is live streaming and putting on shows from their living rooms and that's cool and all but it's just not the same as actually being there in person to experience it and soak it all in.

AAJ: You obviously have a love and appreciation for music but when did you realize that it was something that you could do professionally?

WW: Actually I realized that when I was in middle school. I knew I was good at music but I never really thought about it seriously until our middle school band put on an assembly. One of the tunes we played was "Louie, Louie" and I remember when I played my keyboard solo the whole class just stood up and gave me this loud ovation and it felt really good. That made me want to take things a lot more seriously so that's when I really began to focus in a lot more on my music. At this time I was 11 or 12 years old and from that point on I knew there was no turning back.

AAJ: You write and compose a lot of your own music, what is that creative process like for you?

WW: I've always been a composer that writes for other people. It can be about a particular situation, it can be about something that's funny. For example I have a tune that I recorded with Christian McBride titled "Gang,Gang" and people always ask "what is that?." The song was composed for my wife. She is a retired classical ballerina dancer. Well one day we we're watching Eddie Murphy's Coming to America and there's a scene right before Prince Hakim (Eddie Murphy's character) get's married and everybody is happy and dancing and my wife said, "look at all of that gang, gang dancing." It was a lot of tribal and African style of dancing and my wife mentioned that they don't do that type of dancing in the classical world. I decided to take the feel of the tribal music from the movie and blend it with a classical style of music that my wife was more accustomed to dancing to. So that's a good example on how I like to write songs for people.

One of my students recently asked me if I have been composing lately and I have. Actually one of the songs that I'm working on is an 8 bar vamp, at least for now, and many different rhythms can fit over it. The purpose behind that is to show exactly what this pandemic is doing to the music industry as a whole. Not just to jazz music but to country, hip-hop, pop music and the whole industry. So with these 8 chords I can create all different types of moods and feelings and it can be related to all music. I love to write music like this but it has to be for a purpose.

AAJ: So with that being said there's a song on your new album Reincarnation titled "The Struggle"; what was your inspiration for that song?

WW: My family was going through a lot of pain and heartbreak when I composed that song but at the same time we were able to rise above it. My ex-wife—mother of three of my five kids—was involved in a very horrific accident. It was a very windy day in Massachusetts and while she was sitting in her car a huge massive tree fell right on top of her and she almost died. She lost feelings in a lot of parts of her body but miraculously after about 9 months of rehab she is healthy and back to normal.

In addition to that I lost three relatives to gun violence right here in Baltimore and my family members and I all came together and were able to rise above the pain and sorrow of losing them. I had another family member that was a leader of a gang that almost lost his life to gun violence, he survived being shot 15 times, and has since been able to turn his life around and is now an activist in the Baltimore area. He too has been able to rise above life's challenges. Lastly, another family member of mines lost his life in a car accident. He left behind a beautiful daughter that struggled dealing with his passing but she's been able to find the courage and strength to rise above it. So "The Struggle" is about hope and dealing with life's challenges.

AAJ: That's pretty powerful and gives the song new meaning for me. You also have a song on the album titled "Living the Good Life"; tell us a little about that.

WW: Dope song! I can say that because I wrote it, [laughs]. But it's basically talking a little about how I dealt with my divorce. I had some dark moments during that whole experience but when I came out on the other side of it I met my current wife and had my two babies so I'm at a great place now and I am definitely living the good life!

AAJ: My favorite song on the Reincarnation album is "The Heat of the Night."

WW: Thank you! A lot of people like this song. My inspiration for it came from D'Angelo's "Untitled -How Does it Feel" from his Voodoo album. When you listen to the lyrics of "The Heat of the Night" it's basically about a woman that misses her man so she goes to his house in the heat of the night and things just kind of take off from there.

AAJ: Your approach to this album was a little different from all of your previous albums. How do you think it's being received so far?

WW: I think it's been received pretty well. I think for those that sit and listen to it with an open mind love it. I have read a few comments online where people haven't really made it pass the first track. It's pretty much a smooth, laid back song and it's just a straight groove and some people don't know how to take it because they are so used to me going straight jazz and playing all these different notes. That's fine and it is a part of who I am but it's not my only style. I don't want to showcase just one style of music for the rest of my life, I don't want to be pigeon-holed. The folks that have listened to the whole album realize that this is still very much a jazz record just without the swing feel.

I've been kind of hinting at going in this direction for a long time now. On my previous album Convergence [Mack Avenue Records, 2016] I did Stevie Wonder's "Knocks Me Off My Feet." Mind you I changed it up a bit but I've always been hinting at going in this direction, and it was going to come at some point and I may even continue on with it. The jazz playing is going to always be there, that's always going to be a part of who I am.

AAJ: Can you tell us about your involvement with the SFJAZZ (San Francisco) Collective?

WW: This will be my sixth or seventh year with the group and our new season is scheduled to start this October. This past year I had the pleasure of being the musical director of SFJAZZ. Last year we highlighted the 50th anniversary of two iconic records in Miles Davis's In a Silent Way and Sly and the Family Stones's Stand albums. These two records came out within two months of each other back in 1969 so we decided to take those albums and mix them up a bit.

One thing that really excites me about this year's band is that the music we're playing is totally different from anything that we've played in the past. We are playing a lot of funk and we also added a dope vocalist in Martin Luther McCoy and the amazing guitarist Adam Rogers so the band is awesome! Obed Calvaire, Etienne Charles, Edward Simon, Matt Brewer, David Sanchez and I fill out the rest of the collective. Each year we take a particular composer and pick eight of their hottest tunes and rearrange them and then we also add eight original songs giving us a total of sixteen pieces of music. It's a great band to be a part of and I love that we actually get to rehearse. With this group we get together and rehearse five days a week for about eight hours a day so we actually have time to fine tune things and build chemistry, we all love each other and look at each other as brothers and sister.

Photo Credit: Warren Wolf website

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