Michael Wolff: Impure Thoughts

Michael Wolff
Impure Thoughts
Indianola Music

Ben Varkentine: Who was it that said if you can’t tap your foot to it it’s not a jazz song?

Michael Wolff: Gregory Hines?

On his new album and with his new band, both called Impure Thoughts, Michael Wolff holds African tribal, funk, Indian drone, jazz and even a bit of the rock musical up to the light to see what each throws into relief. Often, one genre’s sound is like the other, or like another thing entirely, contrasting what sets genres apart with what brings them together. You sit and listen to this music and the temptation arises to start this review with the words “Fuck, yeah!” Or “Oh, baby!”

Short version: I liked it.

Long version follows.

Pianist Wolff has played with performers including Nancy Wilson, (for whom he was musical director and arranger, a job he also held on the Arsenio Hall show), Sonny Rollins, and Cannonball Adderley, among many others, since growing up a prodigy in Berkley, California (and earlier, Tennessee and Louisiana).

Impure Thoughts, the band, is made up almost completely of rhythm players. On the CD, besides Wolff, Badal Roy plays tablas; John B. Williams plays bass, Frank Colon percussion, Victor Jones drums, and Alex Foster reeds.

I spoke to Wolff in the small dressing room of Seattle’s Jazz Alley before his first set of two that evening. He told me tabla player Roy, who’s played on albums with Miles, was inspirational in Wolff’s compositions for the band. When Wolff was writing the album Roy “started playing me these beats which I would tape, and I would just sit with beats and write. So the beats are usually what inspires me for this band, this is a very rhythmic band.” This is what you call your understatement. As Wolff points out, “Piano’s a percussion instrument. It’s in the percussion family. So I just got a bunch of my ‘brothers and sisters.’ I have three drummers: a drum set, a tabla player, and a free kind of Brazilian/African/Latin percussionist. It’s a challenge to have everybody find (his) spot and be free. Jazz has, usually, a kind of-” And here Wolff mimics a typical jazz rhythm — “you know, triplet kinda figure thing. And the stuff we play:” And here he taps out a credible version of the Indian-influenced rhythms of much of the album.

For all its rhythm, the music suffers no loss of melody. Wolff stretches out a bit in places like the solo in a cover of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and the extended intro to Davis’ “In A Silent Way,” and draws tight, sketchy chords in others like Sly Stone’s “Thank You (For Lettin’ Me Be Mice Elf…)”

“I think people feel rhythm and remember melody. I don’t think they give a shit about harmony. I don’t think it means anything to them. Musicians care about harmony. People, you know, you feel coloring, but I think it’s the melody that you can sing and the rhythms — that’s what I concentrate on, that the melodies soar. Coltrane said it. You think about Coltrane playing all that out shit, but you could sing most of his melodies. (Sings) ‘A Love Supreme.’ Coltrane said, ‘if the man on the street can’t hum it, it’s not a great jazz song.’ Because that’s the way it relates to its folk roots. It’s folk music in a way, it’s a combination, to me, of art music and a folk music, and that’s the folk part.”

As you might expect with all that percussion, your fingers and feet will be doing a lot of tapping on any available surface as you listen. It’s unavoidable when any one of the rhythm players takes a solo, when two or more play in concert with each other, as in the Temptations cover? Forget about it. Jones sets the rhythm on cymbals and Colon plays in accord. When Jones brings his full kit into play a little deeper into the song, the effect is like watching a cool car rumble by.

Wolff said he considered playing covers like that song and Stone’s “Thank You (For Lettin’ Me Be Mice Elf…) the equivalent for his generation of the standards of jazz, like “Stella Starlight.” “I grew up loving funk and loving rock . . . listening to Sly Stone and playing with a lot of musicians in Oakland who were playing in Sly’s band-I never got to play with him-but that kind of funk, and playing a lot of Latin music…

“To put this band together I actually heard a lot of music from Africa, Eritrea and Ethiopia, they’re two northern Africa countries near India. In that music they had a lot of African percussion but they had some Indian (instruments), drums, and some tablas, and I thought, ‘Oh, I could put this together, man, with my compositions, and some funk, and jazz, put it together and kinda play it. So, the way I look at it is taking the influences that excite me and then filtering them through my personal point of view musically. The way I play, or the way I like. It’s not really an intellectual exercise, because I don’t really study classical Indian music or Brazilian music or African music. I listen to it, especially when I’m in Paris. There’s so many great African musicians over there now…I just kinda put it together and mold it.”

To further explain his love of mixing genres, Wolff drew a parallel. “I have two dogs… George is a cocker spaniel. Over bred, yippy, snappy, irrating-too much pure blood. And the mutt, Greta, who is like part pit bull and part retriever and rotweiler, is a groove, you know? She’s strong, she’s fun-I like the mutts. That’s what the music is to me. It’s not so rarefied and just over bred, or inbred. I hate that.”

His music may be a good dog, but Wolff also took some inspiration from the cat in the hat. He’s attempting a revival of the searching quality of some of Miles Davis’ work examining world musical genres to see where they fit together. It’s an honorable, acknowledged homage, like presenting a tapestry at the feet of a great artist and saying “See what we learned from you master, and where we have gone from the spot in which you left us.” It’s as though Wolff had gone to visit Miles in his house, and then redecorated his own home based on what he remembered of what he had seen.

He confirmed for me that it was his intention to build on some of the ground Miles had struck. “Yeah, absolutely, Miles was always my idol, he and Igor Stravinsky. Igor Stravinsky never wrote a composition that repeated an orchestration. He was an amazing composer. Miles (was) the same thing, the way he put bands together and the way he dealt with personalities and with colors, different ethnic people together, to me was what a real leader should be. Whether it’s in the world or music or whatever, you know?”

I asked if he had ever worked with “the dark prince.”

“I met him and hung out with him. I didn’t work with him. But when I was a bandleader at the Arsenio Hall show, Miles came on. I had done an interview in Rolling Stone when I got (the show) and I said when I put the band together (that) I used Miles as my paradigm. (Miles) saw that I looked up to him and everything.” Actually, Davis was so pleased with Wolff’s remarks and band that he made Wolff a present of an original sketch, which the pianist still treasures, and the two struck up a casual friendship.

I told Wolff that I often thought of Miles’ comment on music preservation — “It’s already been preserved, that’s what the records were for,” — when confronted with Wynton Marsalis and other ‘traditionalists.”

“The tradition is not to go backwards,” said Wolff. The tradition is not to be traditional. That’s what so many people don’t get now. Wynton is great-he’s teaching, he’s doing a lot of stuff but for me, man, you know, it’s making it fossilized jazz, it’s putting it into a museum category. I want it to be alive, I want it to be in the world today.”

I wanted to know more about Wolff’s composition process.

“I don’t necessarily go linearly. I write (a section) and then I go over here, and I draw (on the music paper) arrows where I went to go, or I’ll put an ‘or’ and that means I have two different-it’s almost like a path, you know, you could go here, you could go there. Then what I do is I just live with it and I sit down and play it whenever I can. And (the piece) will always make it known to me which way to go, and (that will) be the way I keep playing it. (After orchestrating the song and getting a lead sheet on it), When I feel good about it, that’s when I’ll bring it in to the band, and then we start usually subtracting things from it. What I have to do for this band is since there’s so much percussion and so much going on, there’s not a lot of harmony…it’s more harmony that I color. So a lot of times I just take away things, you know, I cut out sections, it’s a lot of editing.”

The result, at it’s best, is exotic, contemplative, and glorious. Shyly, you approach it, it approaches you, like a fox. (That’s three animal comparisons so far in this piece and not one play on Wolff’s name. Naturally, I’m very proud.)

Future plans for Wolff include some orchestral projects.

“Of course, nothing’s more hard-hitting than a symphony orchestra. When you’re in that hall and you hear that bam — I’ve conducted about 25 symphonies — That’s the biggest sound you can hear. Louder than a rock band. More powerful, more goes through your body. “I just recently took the third cut on the CD, ‘Euphoria’, and I orchestrated it for tabla and orchestra.” Wolff’s also composed the score for films, including the recent theatrical release The Tic Code (see related reviews of the soundtrack and film in the PopMatters archives), written by and starring his wife, actress/writer Polly Draper. Talking about scoring the film, Wolff wryly offered: “It’s fun to watch your wife with (costar) Gregory Hines over and over again, writing music to it. I’d want it to go (mimes pounding a keyboard angrily), (or) I’d want it to sound like Jaws (sings John Williams’ theme).”

The film tells the story of a piano prodigy’s relationship with an older jazz saxophone player, both of whom suffer from Tourette’s syndrome. Draper based parts of her script on their life together, as Wolff has what the film’s official bio of him describes as a mild form of Tourette’s. This manifests itself, at least in our interview, in periodic tics and small sounds. I admit it was noticeable, but I also went in knowing Wolff had it, which may have made me more aware than I would otherwise have been. I wondered if Wolff had been talked out on the subject during interviews for the film, and he agreed.

“I’ll still talk about it, because I like to help people, but it’s like…for myself, I started saying you know what? I love music. I don’t love Tourette’s. I’m sick of it.”

And indeed, Tourette’s should never be seen as more than a footnote to Wolff’s work, and it will not be so here. Though many people will remember him from his stint on the Hall show that should not overshadow the quality of his work now either.

“A lot of people put me down for doing that TV show and I always (said) ‘Well, wait a minute. Would you guys go up to a street worker and put him down because he’s got an honest living to take care of his family? No, of course you wouldn’t insult somebody like that. So why the fuck would you put me down when I got an opportunity to do a job as a musician?’ You know, it’s honorable. I’m not out robbing banks and dealing dope, you know. Not that dealing’s that bad…”

A few minutes after this joke (a drug reference from a jazz musician, imagine that.), Wolff had to go on, so we said our goodbyes and I went back out into the club.

Jazz Alley is a large, two-level restaurant club with a raised platform stage beneath two rows of lights. Oversized photographs of jazz musicians hang over the staircase leading down from the street entrance.

Just before he goes onstage, I overhear Wolff’s tour manager approach him with some information about how the CD is doing. “Remember, this is right before the gig,” Wolff says, “if this is important, tell me later.”

After a short introduction by a Jazz Alley spokeswoman in which we’re reminded to turn off cell phones and pagers-“because they never go off in the key of the song”-the band takes the stage. And I finally place Wolff’s resemblance to someone, which I hadn’t been able to during our interview. He looks like a smaller, darker Eric Clapton as he counts off the first number with his foot. It is “Eritrea,” which also opens the album with the firework sound of a Brazilian percussion instrument that looks like a small bow (as in and arrow).

Onstage, Wolff doesn’t seem totally comfortable with the “host” aspect of being a bandleader; his joking with the audience does not come off as particularly easy for him, though some jokes do go over. But when playing with the band, he (and they) is just fine.

Roy is featured at the end of “Eritrea” with a lengthy solo, and when was the last time you went to a jazz covert (hell, any concert) that had a tabla solo?

On the disc and in the club bassist Williams, who has played with Wolff for years, is particularly adept at making his bass parts a separate voice within the song, without sacrificing rhythm. Williams and Wolff play well together and set the atmospheric electricity for most of the songs. He does as much as Wolff to evoke the mix of genres. On the Indian influenced “Bengal,” the bass is all but chanting “Ohm.”

Backstage, I’d asked Wolff how much the songs had changed from the CD to the stage; he told me I’d have to be the judge of that. One thing I notice is that a Latin flavor seems to have slipped more into “Eritrea” in Wolff’s playing, and “Bengal” seems to have gone more jazzy, with a little Hancock influence perhaps. The title song of the band and album gets the Most Improved Live Award, however. As recorded, the swells and rolls of the music tend to make me a little seasick, live it’s slower, slinkier and quite impressive.

A couple of numbers in, Wolff introduces the band while Williams plays a bowed bass, evoking the sound of a foghorn or tugboat. New to the band in the touring edition are Valtinho Anastacio on percussion, filling Colon’s role on the album, and Dan Jordan on sax and flute, replacing Foster. Wolff points out that an instrument Anastacio is shaking is actually a Latin abacus, “the only use a musician could find for it,” he says.

In the live band, Jordan’s sound is more ephemeral and softer than Foster’s problematic (for me) work on the CD. Fosters’ past includes session work and two stints in the Saturday Night Live band; callings that would seem to lend themselves to note-perfection and versatility over an identifiable flavor; and that’s the best way to describe his contributions on the album. They are impeccably played in a variety of sounds, but lack a certain strength that says “Ah! Here is a voice!” I get more of a feeling for that strength of voice from Jordan, though I suspect it may not be fully developed yet.

There are feedback problems at one point, and the band vamps while Wolff leaves the stage to consult with the soundman.

I’d like to see Impure Thoughts again at a club where people danced to their music rather than ate and drank to it. This audience seemed to take a rather jaded attitude, though before the set was over I saw more than one head bobbing, and a couple people lined up behind me at the merchandise table afterwards (them to buy the CD, me to buy a T-shirt).

I look forward with no small curiosity to hearing what Wolff will do next.