Michael Wolff: The Art of Communication
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.