Michael Wolff melds African songs and Indian beats with fresh jazz jams.
Thursday, December 1, 2005
Michael Wolff has spent much of his career as a world-class straight-ahead jazz pianist, a fierce accompanist who has worked with many of the music’s greatest improvisers. But when he decided to put together his own band in the late 1990s, he wanted to get away from traditional jazz forms and the reliance on chord changes. Instead, he envisioned a group with an international palette of grooves, an ensemble in which rhythm is the primary textural element. The result of his quest was Impure Thoughts, a band that has emerged in recent years as one of jazz’s most consistently thrilling combos.
The group has undergone several changes, and its latest version is a lean, propulsive groove machine featuring tabla player Badal Roy, who first gained fame with Miles Davis in the mid-1970s, bassist Richie Goods, and drummer Mike Clark, a founding member of Herbie Hancock’s breakthrough Headhunters band. Wolff performs with the quartet on Thursday, Dec. 1, in CSU Monterey Bay’s World Theatre.
Wolff’s interest in pan-global grooves was sparked by his parents. Upon returning from a trip to Yemen and Ethiopia, they brought him a bag of cassettes they had collected. Since the tapes were all labeled in Arabic and Amharic, he didn’t know what he was listening to, but Wolff was mesmerized by the way classical Indian rhythmic cycles were incorporated into the Middle Eastern and African cadences.
“It was a mixture of African sounds and Indian beats that was absolutely amazing,” Wolff writes. “Those countries have absorbed that influence of tablas and tamboura…along with the influence of African percussion.
“All this music harmonically is so simple, but the intrigue comes from the groove, textures and the tension in the music. I never really liked the pyrotechnical kind of chops-oriented fusion stuff. That’s not what I want to play. I want the music to flow and breathe more and I just love the aspect of mixing different elements together.”
The Berkeley-raised pianist got his start with Latin jazz pioneer Cal Tjader, but he made his mark when alto saxophone legend Cannonball Adderley recruited him in 1975. That gig paved the way for high profile stints with jazz greats such as Sonny Rollins, Airto Moreira and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, though he got the widest exposure as musical director for Nancy Wilson. But even that gig couldn’t compare to the attention he gained during his five-year tenure as music director for the Arsenio Hall Show.
Wolff returned to the screen in 1999 with the television movie The Tic Code, a story inspired by his own triumph over Tourette’s Syndrome. With a script written by his wife Polly Draper (of “thirtysomething” fame), the film tells the story of an aspiring young musician with Tourette’s and his complex relationship with a saxophone star played by Gregory Hines (who has long suppressed his Tourette’s tics in order to pursue his career as a performer). Wolff wrote the acclaimed soundtrack, an album that stands among his best work.
His impressive discography includes a series of excellent recordings, such as the trio sessions Jumpstart and 2AM featuring the late drum legend Tony Williams and bass star Christian McBride. “Even as I was doing those straight-ahead projects,” Wolff writes, “I always wanted to do something that was more world music oriented.”
The pianist has realized his ambition in 2000 with Impure Thoughts, a blazing session with his old friend Alex Foster on reeds, Arsenio Hall bandmate John B. Williams on bass, and a percussion dream team of Badal Roy, Frank Colon, Victor Jones and Café. Last year, he released his Dangerous Vision, but instead of focusing on original material, Wolff puts an impure spin on classic tunes drawn from the repertoires of his former employers, such as Tjader’s “Soul Sauce,” Adderley’s “Work Song” and Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas.” The results are consistently enthralling.
MICHAEL WOLFF AND IMPURE THOUGHTS PLAY THURSDAY AT 7:30PM AT CSUMB’S WORLD THEATER, BUILDING 28, 100 CAMPUS CENTER, IN SEASIDE. $25/GENERAL; $10/STUDENTS. 582-4580.