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.
Love and Destruction is so far removed from the trio album stylistically, it's hard to believe it was conceived by the same musician. Yet the results are just as inventive and fresh. This time Wolff looked, in part, at the relationship between the lyrics and melody of songs from the pop canon. As I spoke with Michael, I mentioned that I had recently heard a version of Dion's "Abraham, Martin and John performed by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and the music behind these assassination tales was so cheerful it was ludicrous. Wolff verified that it was that kind of dichotomy he explored on the new album. "If you listen to some of these songs like 'Stop! In the Name of Love' it seems like the melodies and the words don't always go together. In this case you have this wrenching, painful song about the difficulties of love, but it's wrapped up in this happy, bouncy melody that's totally at odds with the lyrics. So on Love and Destruction I tried to come up with interpretations that were more reflective of the spirit of the words. Wolff successfully takes that approach on "Stop! , the Rolling Stones' "Miss You, Lee Dorsey's old New Orleans hit "Ya Ya, and Donovan's hippie-trippy "Mellow Yellow.
Love also addresses the contemporary rock scene, first with a cover of Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place. Asked why Radiohead seems to have such an appeal to jazz musicians who have produced a wealth of such covers in the past few years, Wolff simply states, "I think it's just because they're great songs. They have a good sense of melody, they're interesting both musically and lyrically, and there is some good meat there for interpreting. Wolff also presents a tense version of "Hostage O, penned by his longtime friend and occasional partner Warren Zevon. "Warren was one of the great songwriters, and that particular song always held something for me. Wolff's own voice conveys some of the world-weariness that marked Zevon's best work.
The disc is rounded off by some exceptional Wolff originals, including "Tell Me with the African Children's Choir ("I had done a concert at the Royal Albert Hall where the Choir also appeared, and I decided I really wanted to do something with them when the chance came up ) and "Underwater , his take on the flooding in his hometown of New Orleans. "It's such a heartbreaking thing, to see all the lives that were ruined and all the things that were destroyed in this one moment of time. I felt like I just had something I had to say, coming from New Orleans and having so many memories there. The song effectively communicates Wolff's sense of loss and frustration with the disaster and its aftermath. And in that, he communicates the feelings of the wider public affected by Katrina, residents, vacationers and sympathizers.
Complicating Wolff's personal communication a bit is his Tourette's syndrome, a widely misunderstood condition for which he serves as a national spokesperson. Those who know anything about the syndrome usually associate it with coprolalia, an uncontrollable compulsion to spout profanities. This is indeed common, although vocal and facial tics are just as likely to signal the disorder. Medication is the usual course of action, but it's a testimony to Wolff's tenacity that he has been able to keep his Tourette's under control through mere concentration.
In 2000 Wolff scored a controversial film called The Tic Code, starring and written by his wife, thirtysomething actress Polly Draper. It's the story of young piano prodigy Miles Caraday's relationships with his loving mother, Laura (Draper), and a black saxophonist named Tyrone (affectingly portrayed by the late Gregory Hines). Both the boy and Tyrone have Tourette's, and the film reveals their different ways of coping. The film was honored by the Tourette's community as an honest portrayal of the family dynamic in dealing with the syndrome. In one scene, watching a film of Thelonious Monk in performance, Draper's character offers the opinion that the iconoclastic pianist himself had Tourette's. This scene fired up the wrath of some in the jazz community who considered it a rude, discriminatory stab at a creative genius. Wolff, however, stands by the observation. "Absolutely, Thelonious Monk had Tourette's, although it was probably the least of his problems. When you take that film clip to the experts in the field, and all of them state unequivocally that the signs of Tourette's are there, then that pretty much says it all.
Michael Wolff and son Nat, clowning around at Brian Bromberg's studio in Los Angeles.
Tourette's aside, the Wolff family's life is a bit different from other celebrity households. Draper now writes and directs the smash Nickelodeon children's series The Naked Brothers Band, which stars their two young sons, thirteen-year-old Nat and nine-year-old Alex. The series started out as a 2004 TV-movie, the cast of which included several extended family members and bassist John B. Williams (also an actor in The Tic Code). The concept is based loosely upon the kids' real lives as musical prodigies and loving rivals; Draper actually builds each episode around a different song written by the brothers, putting the music almost at center stage. Michael Wolff plays, essentially, himself as a goofball, accordion-pumping dad who is always trying to horn into the kids' band. Michael maintains that the character is nothing like him in real life, although Nat (with a grin) says there is a close resemblance.
Wolff beams when discussing his talented progeny and their future, pridefully noting that Nat's year-end piano recital included a Bach invention and Miles Davis' "So What. He indicates that the series meshes with his vision to bring the joy of jazz to a younger audience. "This next season on the show, I'll be portraying not only myself as the Dad, but as his evil twin, a conniving jazz pianist. It will give us a chance to expose the audience to a little more jazz. And it should be a lot of fun besides! And so the art of prior generations gets communicated to the next.
Top photo: Michael Wolff
Bottom photo: Todd S. Jenkins