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Warren Wolf: The Wizard of Vibes


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Warren Wolf has made his name by playing the vibes, which he does with aplomb. He's as much a virtuoso on the instrument as anyone, even including his jazz elders. That may be, in part, because he was influenced by the sound of Milt Jackson and studied with one of the best in Dave Samuels, while his attack is more influenced by horn players like Charlie Parker.

His technique is immense. None other than the great bassist Christian McBride has said that he's excited beyond belief about Wolf, avowing, "His talent is so far off the radar screen. ... Everything you want in a musician: he has that, times 20." McBride met Wolf in 2000 and pledged that one day he would have a band that would include Wolf. That plan became a reality, and Wolf has been a regular member of McBride's band Inside Straight since its inception.

Wolf, however, is more than a vibes player. He's good enough that he could make a living as a jazz drummer, if he wanted to. Percussion is so innate with the man that his close friends and family don't even call him by his given name. "Warren," he admits, is more like a business name. His family and friends call him "Chano," a nickname given to him, as a boy, by his father, Warren Wolf Sr. The elder Wolf, though a teacher, was an amateur percussionist and a big fan of Latin rhythms, hence the nickname. Chano Pozo was the first conguero hired by Dizzy Gillespie when the legendary trumpeter began incorporating Latin rhythms into his music in the 1940s.

Wolf is also a fine pianist and has done jazz gigs on the ivories. He has that outstanding feel for harmony and melody. "Playing the vibes is something different. There's nothing that really attracted me. If I played trombone or saxophone, that attracts me, too. I think the vibraphone kind of sticks out compared to other instruments. You don't see it all the time. When you do see it, you're seeing these colorful mallets—depending on what color you decide to get—striking metal. It's pretty cool—like a drum, but it makes different tones," explains Wolf. "Vibes is my main axe, I would say, because of how people have labeled me. If I had to give my own label, I would say it's a mix between vibes and drums. I don't consider piano a main axe. It's definitely a mix, in my opinion. But I'm not going to argue with people.

"I do gigs on all three. I'll do vibes, piano, drum gigs. I do all of them. There have been some times when it's called for. On certain gigs that I do, I'll have an extra drum set on stage. That way we can mix it up instead of giving an entire show on vibes. I'll switch over to the drums and play with the other drummer. Or there are times I have a Fender Rhodes on stage; I'll get on Fender Rhodes or piano. It's about the show. We want to play the music to the fullest, but I'm giving people a show."

He might not view the vibes as his main thing, but when one listens to his 2011 CD, Warren Wolf (Mack Avenue), it's awfully hard to fathom. His smooth technique is on full display, swinging and swirling. He brings it, even when playing a sweet ballad like "How I Feel at This Given Moment." It's not his first recording, but of his previous four, two are Japanese imports, and two are self-produced. This one, on the Mack Avenue label, gives him his widest potential audience thus far. McBride is the co-producer as well as the bassist. The band is tight, but definitely driven by Wolf and his uplifting energy. He's a vibes wizard, for sure. And the band is first rate, with Gregory Hutchinson on drums, Peter Martin on piano, and appearances by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and saxophonist Tim Green.

Wolf wrote six of the 10 selections, but not specifically with the recording or band in mind. He did, however, specifically piece together a band, keeping the sound he wanted in mind. The result is a clear, straight jazz feel: a cool vibe throughout. It's played with soul and conviction, and should help spread the word on one of the baddest vibraharp cats around. As a whole, the record accomplished exactly what Wolf wanted.

"We had a lot of fun in the recording," said Wolf from New York City (Baltimore is his home) during a weeklong run with McBride's band at the Village Vanguard. "I wanted to keep it nice and fresh—keep it full of energy, not predictable. I wanted to keep it going as regular, straight-ahead jazz. Stuff you can tap your foot to and things like that. A lot of people nowadays, when they're playing this so-called music, jazz, they're playing a lot of different stuff. It's beautiful music. But in my humble opinion, I don't think it can relate to the normal person who's walking down the street. Jazz as a whole is very complex. I'm trying to make it as simple as possible so people can understand it—have some type of clear line, clear melody that somebody can somewhat remember."

He put musicians together who had a previous relationship with one another, and people he knew would be comfortable. He wanted that to show in the music. "I didn't have anything in mind, tune-wise, for the band. I just knew once I got the band together, everything would come together good," he adds. "It wasn't a long process at all. We finished the record in two days. When I get into the studio, I like to keep going. I'm not hungry. I'm not tired. I'm full of energy. But to give everybody a rest so we could make the tracks sound fresh, we decided to do it in two days. The whole entire record was practically done live."

Only a marimba part on Chick Corea's "Senor Mouse" was overdubbed. "That's how I like to do things—keep it live and real. For people who will probably never see my group, I try to give them the best possible live performance, except it's on CD. Or download—whatever people are doing nowadays."

As producer, McBride gave Wolf a very free rein. "He didn't say too much. I could see if this was my first time ever going into the studio as a leader. But, even though this Mack Avenue recording is my first worldwide release, this is not my first recording as a leader. ... I pretty much knew what I was doing. But it helped to have Christian throw his two cents in there when the time came. He was definitely a big help."

Wolf, 31, also acknowledges that McBride—one of the finest bass players anywhere and a tireless worker for jazz causes of all kinds—is a major influence. "He's very much an influence, not just musically," says Wolf. "Musically, yes. Definitely. From the way he plays, to the way he listens, to the way he develops his solos and things like that. But even off the bandstand, I listen to how he introduces the band members, how he tries to keep the audience engaged with us. He does a lot of different things like that, and I try to kind of model myself off that. Down to the way he dresses. He's a good all- around man who knows what he's doing."

Pelt, whose superb trumpet work spices up a couple of the tunes, is also an important figure in Wolf's life. "He was a guy I first met at Berklee College of Music in the fall of 1997. He helped me out in a lot of ways. He introduced me to the whole Wally's scene, Wally's Club up in Boston, which coincidentally is the opening track on the record, '427 Mass Ave.' That's the actual address of Wally's. Jeremy introduced me to that club and got me to a lot of musicians there. He took me around Berklee and got me playing with the best students. He also got me my first gig ever in New York, which was at that club on the Upper West Side, Cleopatra's Needle. He gave me my first exposure to the New York jazz scene."

Wolf's first exposure to music was many years earlier, at a very young age. It came via his father, a huge music lover, who started young Warren on the road to being Chano at the age of three, playing vibes and marimba. As he got older, piano was included. Wolf's father instituted a strict regimen of practice—at least 90 minutes a day, split among the three instruments. But music wasn't utmost in the youngster's life. "To be honest, I really hated it," he says, somewhat bemused. "Not just the vibes—I hated music, period. Practicing, practicing, practicing."

Like so many kids his age, Wolf wanted to be outside running around, playing sports, hanging with friends—which he did do at times. But there was always the practice regimen that beckoned. Warren Wolf, Sr. saw that music was in his talented son's future, even if Chano wasn't aware. Wolf eventually attended Peabody Preparatory school in Baltimore, studying classical music with former Baltimore Symphony Orchestra member Leo LePage. At about the age of 11, he got a solo in one of the band recitals. There was applause, which was cool to the young lad. There was also some recognition from those of the opposite sex. Cooler yet. The sacrificing for practice began to make sense. With a chuckle, Wolf recalls, "I began to think there was something to this music thing."

Wolf went on to high school at the Baltimore School for the Arts, and it was there that he started to get more into jazz. Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson caught his ear on vibes, but Bird, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and others were heavy musical influences and helped define his direction. After graduation in 1997, he headed for Berklee College of Music in Boston. Pelt introduced him around and got him playing gigs at the school cafeteria with classmates like Kendrick Scott and Walter Smith III, in addition to showing him Wally's jazz club. By his senior year, Wolf was gigging in Boston. At Wally's, he became the house drummer, helped by trumpeter Darren Barrett, and he co-led a band there for a time. He stayed in Boston after his 2001 graduation and did some teaching at the college, as well as gigs, before returning to Baltimore after a couple years.

Tim Warfield was his first big-gig, and mini-tour, opportunity. Wolf was still in Boston at the time. "He was the first guy to ever hire me, as far as jazz," recalls Wolf. "He was the first artist to give me a chance. We went down to St. Louis. We did four nights. I was about 20. I was living in Boston at the time that happened. When I moved back to the Baltimore-D.C. area, Tim was one of the first guys I called. He immediately called a lot of guys in D.C.; York, PA; and Harrisburg, PA. He called me up for a lot of gigs. He was a big help. I haven't played with him in quite a while, but I'd like to get back to it."

Warfield apparently bragged about Wolf to others, including pianist Mulgrew Miller. Miller "gave me a call the next day after Tim called. He gave me a chance to go to Japan. We did a two-week tour of Japan with his group Wingspan. I was subbing for Steve Nelson. He's always been very supportive of not just me but younger musicians, giving us a chance to play and work our stuff out. Also, he's come to work with me. I've called him to do a couple guest appearances when I was working at Berklee. He's come to Baltimore to play with me. He's done so much for me, I can't even describe it. Tremendous cat," Wolf says.

Bobby Watson was also among those to hear about Wolf's talent, and hired him sight unseen in his touring band, for a time. Playing with the young, talented singer Rachael Price helped keep Wolf busy as well, with recording and touring. He's played with the Donal Fox Group and has performed with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Pelt, Nicholas Payton, Aaron Goldberg, Terri Lyne Carrington, Ron Carter, Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding and others. He also occupied himself with his self-produced records, as well as the pair that was produced in Japan.

His efforts of late, especially after the 2011 Mack Avenue release, involve getting his own band out there, playing his music. In 2011, he did all of the pushing and promoting, but he's been developing a team to take that on and hopes it will gel in 2012. "I do realize it's a slow process. I do realize it takes patience. I can't expect to just jump over everybody else and be on top of the world," he says. "But everybody who's big right now were in my shoes at some point. It will come. ... I'm in the right position. My foot is in the door, being a leader. It just takes some time to blossom."

Wolf is pleased with where he stands, especially what he calls "the ultimate sideman job, in my eyes, with Christian McBride." He notes there may be another Inside Straight recording in 2012 that should lead to more touring. Meanwhile, he's also playing in a band with pianist Aaron Diehl. And with Diehl, he also performs some of the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet. So his docket looks full, a good thing in today's economy. And while he likes many styles of music, the pull of jazz is strong and it is the focal point of his career.

"For me, it's all about the freedom of it," says Wolf." "You're not restricted. That's what it is for me. You get to compose. You get to do your own compositions, but then again you get to turn them around and play them differently, any time you want to. Jazz is all about freedom to me."

Selected Discography

Warren Wolf, Warren Wolf (Mack Avenue, 2011)

Christian McBride & Inside Straight Kind of Brown (Mack Avenue, 2009)

Warren Wolf, Black Wolf (M&I Japan, 2009)

Bobby Watson, From the Heart (Palmetto, 2008)

Warren Wolf, Warren "Chano Pozo" Wolf (Self-produced, 2008)

Warren Wolf, Raw (Self-produced, 2005)

Warren Wolf, Incredible Jazz Vibes (M&I Japan, 2005)

Photo Credits
Page 2: C. Andrew Hovan
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Warren Wolf

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