An Interview with Michael Wolff
Flexing His Creative Thoughts…
by Paula Edelstein
“I use my head for the science, my hands for the craft and my heart for the emotion, to create the music of IMPURE THOUGHTS.”~ Michael Wolff
When my colleague, John Barrett of JazzUSA.Com reviewed Michael Wolff’s Impure Thoughts back in October 2000, I thought to myself, “This is smokin’!” The well-deserved praise kept pouring in and we played it several more times because of its great improvisations, its bop syntheses and fresh grooves. As only Michael could, he captivated us with his blend of some of the most adventurous musical elements from around the world and captured them on eight great songs. With a heritage rich in several distinct styles culled from growing up in such culturally rich cities as New Orleans, Memphis, and Berkeley, CA, Micheal Wolff releases an implosion of musical colors and textures that is mysterious, yet bright, sexy yet serene. His musical thoughts are captured with long-time band members, Alex Foster on saxophones and bass clarinet, John B. Williams on bass, Victor Jones on drums, Frank Colon on percussion and Badal Roy on tablas. They are collectively known as Impure Thoughts. We caught up with Michael and got the inside scoop on his new CD, Impure Thoughts! Here’s what he had to say!
JazzUSA: Congratulations on your latest CD Impure Thoughts. We have received a lot of interest from our readers, and as you know, John Barrett, Jr. was the first to bring it to our attention here at JazzUSA.com. How did the concept for the project come about?
MW: To tell you the truth, there were two reasons. First of all, I just grew up listening to all kinds of music and I always loved music from Africa and South America and that kind of music. Being a jazz lover, I love music by Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley who both had experimented with those different kinds of music. Second, my first gigs were with Cal Tjader, who is the Latin jazz vibist, and the second was with Airto Moriera and Flora Purim from Brazil — so I was always drawn to that kind of music. After doing a lot of straight-ahead music for the last five or six years, I thought I’d do something different. I hear a lot of World music, in addition to spending a lot of time in Europe – particularly in Paris — so I just wanted to put that music into what I was playing…especially those beats.
JazzUSA: It sounds great. I’d like to focus on a few aspects of the music from the three components of music: rhythm, harmony and melody. First, in the harmonic sense, you’ve based the music more on Middle Eastern scales, which is a big change in the harmonic sense of your playing. Why did you choose this particular approach for Impure Thoughts?
MW: I’d just been listening to…particularly working with the tabla, Badal Roy and the tabla,and that instrument just has that feeling (harmonic) to it for me. The way that the tabla is played is a swinging kind of jazz instrument in that way and yet I think that the tones that I hear out of it just seem to fit. You know in Indian music, it’s all based on one major tone; they don’t modulate. They just have everything in one key so they have many more notes. We have 12 notes in our chromatic scale and they have a lot more. Just having those scales (Middle Eastern) just seemed to me that they would feel like there would be more colors going on within a root.
JazzUSA: The band is playing a lot of music around drone tones and as a result, the tone colors we hear from you are constantly developing and lay the groundwork for the next theme or subject of the improvisation. This is especially strong on the opening track, “Eritrea” and on “Euphoria.”
JazzUSA: The mix of African and Indian beats and sounds is especially intriguing and mystical. I really like the compositional synthesis of Badal Roy’s tablas with John B. Williams’ bass and your piano underlining the musical centers of the songs. Was there a particular circumstance or event that shaped “Eritrea?”
MW: Yes, actually my mother and stepfather took a trip to Eritrea and Ethiopia about five years ago. They travel all over the world and usually bring back music from all these places. This particular CD had Arabic writing and I had no idea what it was! So I listened to it, and I heard this mix of Indian and African music so that was really the inspiration for that. Also there was a guy named John Cartwright who worked for many years with Harry Belafonte who had traveled a lot in Africa. He had some different sample beats on a drum machine. So I put those two things together again and came up with that tune. That was the whole basis for the concept for the whole band and the CD.
JazzUSA: That’s cool! The title track, “Impure Thoughts” features Alex Foster out front on the saxophone stating the melody. He seems to abandon himself to the flow of music, immersing himself in the magic of the musical thought, so to speak…sort of like a Sonny Rollins kind of vibe! Had you been playing together a lot?
MW: Alex and I have known each other for over 20 years! He and I moved from the San Francisco area so we’ve had many bands together. He and I breathe together. He and I and John B. Williams have been playing together for years. Whatever we do together, it’s always in sync…neither has to move a muscle. It just goes. It’s amazing how it works.
JazzUSA: It sure does work! You’ve had some pretty intense associations with some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, and have played a variety of jazz styles, i.e., Airto’s style, Sonny Rollin’s style, Christian McBride’s style, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis’, style, etc. They all have quite different styles and make up a really nice gumbo of jazz! How would you compare “Impure Thoughts” to the mixture of jazz giants that you’ve worked with?
MW: Well I think that Impure Thoughts is kind of a step forward in that it’s blending the jazz background that I have with more World Music and funk. Cannonball Adderley always said he was trying to get that last foot out of Birdland and he was trying to keep it moving forward. I’m not the kind of person that wants to go recreate music from the 50s, although I like what other people do, I want to try to come up with something new. Knowing where I’m coming from and utilizing the past but pairing what’s going on in the present and projecting into the future…that’s where I’m coming from.
JazzUSA: “On Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” you elaborate further on their original funky melodic concepts by adding some great homophonic textures. These are both outstanding songs but you approach the piano with total harmonic, rhythmic and melodic freedom.
MW: Right and as you know, most of our music is based around a very simple chord center as is most of folk music. I feel that jazz and the music that I play is a combination of folk music and our music. It’s not one or the other. That’s what makes the folks like it! And then again, as a piano player, I see myself not only as a soloist but also as an orchestrator. So when the bass is thumping on songs like “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” I have complete freedom to play any color I want.
JazzUSA: Your rendition of “In A Silent Way” is classic! There is such a cerebral aspect to it as well as your skill in arranging the melody for saxophone, the addition of exotic percussive instruments and your piano solo really capturing the listener with its manipulation of musical motives, your varying them and elaborating on them. This song is still a catalyst that ignites one to put together another remarkable body of work that is serene but explosive. You’ve done a great job with this one.
MW: Thanks. That’s a tune that I’ve always loved and I recorded once before. I just can’t get enough of it. It’s magic. When it came out in ’69, it blew my mind! It blew everybody’s mind. It’s a whole different direction. Joe Zawinul, who’s responsible for the tune, really laid the groundwork for Miles’ electric fusion days with this one. Alex Foster also doubled on bass clarinet on the melody to give it a little more bottom and richness. I played it in a totally different mode than what the tune is…I played my piano solo in a major 7th different scale.
JazzUSA: Do you plan to feature any of the songs in concert this year? If so, where can your fans see and hear you?
MW: Absolutely. We’re playing the whole CD in concert this year. We’ll be at the Kennedy Center on January 11th at the Terrace Theater for the Art Tatum Piano Series. Benny Green, Ellis Marsalis, Cyrus Chestnut will be there. On the 12th, I’ll be in New York City playing at The Friends Seminary School, which is a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration and Fundraiser and I will be a part of the International Association of Jazz Educators Panel on the 13th. Also on the 13th, we’re playing at The West Bank Café, which is where we started the band. And on the 14th we’ll be at Miami Jazz Festival with Pancho Sanchez, David Sanborn, Jonathan Butler.We have a U.S. Tour starting in February 2001 so check out the schedule at our website http://www.michaelwolff.com
JazzUSA: We sure will. Thank you so much for this interview, Michael. We really are enjoying Impure Thoughts and wish you continued success with it.
MW: Thank you Paula.