Interview: Jazz pianist extraordinaire, Michael Wolff
BY AL CARLOS HERNANDEZ ON FEBRUARY 19, 2013
HOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris) — After several critically acclaimed performances in 2012, jazz masters Michael Wolff and Mike Clark, the Wolff & Clark Expedition, are preparing to release their self-titled debut album in February 2013. Performing with bassist Chip Jackson, the Expedition’s initial outing aims for uncharted, compelling musical territories while still entertaining a wide audience of astute listeners.
Michael Wolff says, “We have been playing together for many years – we share the same vision, energy and excitement for jazz music, for improvisation. The musical goal of The Expedition is to utilize well-known tunes in addition to intriguing originals and to deconstruct them, then reconstruct them as vehicles for self-expression. We believe it is time to bring modern sensibilities and styles of playing (and writing) to music that comes from the blues and the roots of jazz to create fresh rhythmic and harmonic/melodic adventures.” Performing together since the 1970’s, both Wolff and Clark have each had stellar music careers. Michael Wolff is an internationally acclaimed pianist, composer and bandleader, and is best known for his melodically fresh and rhythmically compelling piano style.
Wolff made his recording debut in 1972 with Cal Tjader and went on to record with Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson, Sonny Rollins, Tony Williams, Christian McBride and many others. As pianist and music director for jazz singer Nancy Wilson, Michael wrote orchestral arrangements and conducted more than twenty-five major symphony orchestras worldwide. From 1989 to 1994, Michael served as the bandleader for the Aresenio Hall Show, which heightened his visibility and gave him the opportunity to perform with many established artists such as Ray Charles, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, Patti LaBelle, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and saxophonist/President Bill Clinton. Michael Wolff has released twelve critically acclaimed solo albums as a leader, ‘Joe’s Strut’ being the most recent.
He was a recipient of the BMI Music Award for television composition and was also the winner of the Gold Disk Award in Japan for piano. On Feb 23, 2012 Michael performed a solo piano concert at the University of Toledo, in Toledo, Ohio, as part of their Art Tatum solo piano concert.
Herald de Paris Deputy Managing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez had the rare opportunity to speak to both Wolff and Clark before their jazz project takes off into the universe. Their collaboration is causing a major buzz in Europe these days…
AC: You were born in New Orleans but were raised in Berkeley. What childhood experience pointed you toward a life in music?
MW: I spent my first couple of years in New Orleans and then, until I was 9 years, old in Memphis, Tennessee. What got me into music was the fact that my father was an amateur musician. He loved jazz and always played music for me in the house. He also played clarinet, saxophone, and piano, and he taught me to play W. C Handy’s The Saint Louis Blues on the piano when I was four years old.
AC: What did you listen to growing up? Where you influenced by the heavy music scene in the Bay Area with its eclectic styles of music?
MW: When I was young I listened to the music my father loved: Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Ray Charles and George Shearing. I loved Ray Charles and George Shearing. I didn’t know their names but knew they were both blind. I’d say to my Dad, “Play the blind guys. Play the blind guys!” When we moved to Berkeley, California in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was exposed to many types of music. I was involved with the rock and roll scene, and listened to all the bands that played for free in Provo Park in Berkeley on the weekends. I played the drums and sang in a local band called The Electronic Cucumber. We got that name by having a contest in the neighborhood for the band name. Can you imagine the names that we didn’t use?
AC: When was the exact moment when you realized you were going to be a pro musician. What was the dream at that point?
MW: I don’t remember just one moment where I decided to become a professional musician. I do remember that when I was fifteen I started taking jazz piano lessons with a great pianist/teacher in the Bay Area named Dick Whittington. I would practice every day after school and imagine myself playing a real concert in a big concert hall or recording in a real studio. I would actually feel what it would be like to play the piano in those situations. After studying and practicing and beginning to play at clubs with a jazz band, I just couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do besides be a jazz musician.
AC: Tell us about your teenage years. What attracted you to Latin music and jazz?
MW: In my teenage years I was lucky to have a great jazz band and music teacher in my high school, Berkeley High School. His name was Bill Elliott and he was very encouraging to all his students. I studied ear training and music theory, and played and composed for the jazz band. We had many talented musicians in the band who became professional musicians like saxophonists Lenny Pickett and Steve Elson, trombonist/composer Nic tenBroek, and percussionist Johnny Otis Junior. Duke Ellington once came to a rehearsal of our jazz band and heard us playing. He even heard one of my compositions. He was very complimentary. He said, “Am I going with you or are you going with me?” He was a great guy and an inspiration to all of us. I also got to hear Roland Kirk (the great multi-reed player) play across the street from our high school at Washington Elementary School. The Bay Area was a great place to grow up because Jazz and Latin music were really appreciated and encouraged. Berkeley High was the only public high school in Berkeley so all races went to school there. It was 40 % black, 40 % white, and the rest Asian and Latin American. We all influenced each other and I think that was a positive for the music scene in Berkeley. It was also a very turbulent time, the late 60’s, and was politically wild and exciting. Music was changing constantly during this time. Miles Davis put out some amazing albums and began experimenting with electric instruments and Jimmy Hendrix was around. Rock, Blues, jazz, Latin, classical . . . it was all intermingling and that affected all of us musicians at the time. The boundaries of musical styles were melting away and we all were proud to play all styles of music and to mix them together in a soulful gumbo.
AC: How did you land the gig with Cal Tjader at only nineteen? What did that experience teach you? Do you still color some of your chops with a little Latin soul source?
MW: I had a gig at Fantasy Records in Berkeley while I was in college at UC Berkeley when I was nineteen years old. I was supposed to write out the songs of rock and roll bands that couldn’t read or write music. In order to copyright the music it needed to be written out. I wrote it out exactly and the guy who hired me told me to write it out simply, not as it was actually sung. I told him that didn’t make sense and he fired me from the job. I was walking around Fantasy and spied Cal Tjader in a small room listening to a copy of his new album. I introduced myself and told him I was a jazz pianist and was ready to play in his band. He was polite and told me to come see him later in the summer at El Matador jazz club in San Francisco. I forgot about it, but my friend reminded me and I went to the club. I wasn’t allowed in because I was under twenty-one. I went back every night and on that Sunday night a nice waitress snuck me in. I said, “Hi!” to Cal and he let me sit in on the last set. I played well and he told me to come back the following week. I sat in every night that week and he gave me the job. The first gig we played was two weeks at a club in Tucson, Arizona. The second gig I did was a huge concert at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Latin Jam. I was playing with Cal Tjader on vibes, Al Mackibbon on bass, Armando Peraza on congas, Willie Bobo on timbales, Dick Berk on drums, and Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry on trumpet. I learned to play Latin music while with Cal. He loved Afro Cuban and all the different styles within that and Brazilian. I was exposed to those styles and their leading proponents and had the opportunity to play those styles every night. I still infuse my music, my composing and my playing, with all those rhythmic feels.
AC: Why didn’t you pursue pop and rock which are much more profitable?
MW: I loved pop and rock and was exposed to it and I did play drums in a rock band and some piano, but jazz was my favorite music and I wasn’t thinking about money. I was just thinking about how jazz music made me feel so good. I also love the fact that with jazz you can play however you feel in the moment. We always included rhythms and sounds from blues and rock and soul and funk and Latin in our jazz. There was a Bay Area band, The Fourth Way that was combining acoustic jazz improvisation with rock rhythms and song forms.
AC: Tell us about hooking up with jazz heavy weights Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. What did you bring to the table and what did you learn from them.?What is the good and bad of working with cats of that caliber?
MW: I was lucky to play with the greatest musicians in jazz in the 70’s. I played for a year with Airto Moreira and Flora Purim. Then I was the last pianist with the great Cannonball Adderley Quintet. That was my favorite sideman gig I’ve ever had. I loved the soul and blues feel underneath the jazz that Cannonball’s band played and he was a wonderful mentor to me, telling me to play the way I play all over the piano and never listen to anyone who tells me how to play. He encouraged me to compose for the band and, had he lived, the next album we were going to record was to feature the music I had written for the band and that we were playing live.
I played with Sonny Rollins for two years. I got the gig because the drummer, Eddie Moore, knew me and called me to come rehearse with Sonny. I loved playing with Sonny but don’t think I appreciated how great he is at that time. I think he’s the best improviser ever in jazz. His theme and development are unique. He has an amazing energy and sound on the saxophone and transcends time and style to create singular, beautiful and soul stirring music.
I think what I brought and bring to the table as a musician is an exciting energy, a focus on rhythm, and an open mind every night about what the music will be. I like to be in the moment and create on the spot. I am willing to be experimental and open harmonically at any moment. I love to react to the musicians I am playing with on the spot and go into areas that are unexpected and fresh.
I learned a lot from all the people I played with – most often non verbally. In my whole career we never discussed harmony or rhythm or anything technical. It was always what we were bringing to the audience and how we could improve that – how we could improve the set. Nat Adderley did tell me to build a solo by starting with regular musical ideas and then build up to using the effects I was using at the time on the electric piano. That was great advice. It was all good playing with those great musicians. Playing every night with wonderful musicians taught me how to play, how to bring my individuality to the music, how to be a great sideman, and how to be an effective leader.
AC: How did you land the job as musical director for Arsenio Hall? What was that experience like? How does it affect your music and career to do a steady TV gig like that? I’m told that Arsenio was you greatest tutor? How so?
MW: When I became musical director for the great singer Nancy Wilson, I learned to conduct orchestras, arrange for vocalist and orchestra, and to sing backup with her. I learned always from being on the bandstand. It was on the job training. Much different from the way musicians learn in school now. Our opening act for Nancy Wilson was comedian Arsenio Hall and he and I became good friends. He always said he’d have a talk show and he’d hire me to lead the band. And he did! It was a great experience. I got to play with so many great musicians of all styles including: Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Al Green, Ray Charles, Ringo Starr, Warren Zevon, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, Patty LaBelle, Yo Yo Ma, Placido Domingo, Grandmaster Flash, and Teddy Riley. I also learned to compose music quickly, because often Arsenio would shoot a short video that needed music and I had to watch it a couple of times, write music immediately, and record it with our band on the spot. It was a fantastic experience that helped train me to write music for film and television. What I learned from Arsenio was to be in the moment and to respond to whatever was going on around you onstage. He is an amazing talent and responded to whatever was happening onstage and off immediately.
AC: You are one of the few straight-up jazz players that really entertain the audiences. Recently in San Francisco they said you did a little standup comedy and even danced a little on stage. How important is it to engage a jazz crowd?
MW: I learned to talk to the audience by watching Cannonball Addereley talk to the audience. He told me if you open yourself up to the audience you can take them further musically and that they will go with you musically anywhere. I’ve found that to be true. I love to make people laugh so I incorporate that into my performance. It’s not usually planned out; I’m as in the moment with my talking as I am with my playing.
AC: Tell us about your musical relationship and friendship with the late Joe Zawinul? Do you have a desire to continue his legacy?
MW: I always looked up to Joe Zawinul. He was one of the pioneers of fusion jazz and wrote some of the greatest music ever written. I met him after I got the gig with Cannonball. The drummer, Roy McCurdy, took me to Joe’s house in Malibu (in LA) and I spent the day with Joe. He showed me all kinds of cool chords on the piano. He loved music and had a healthy ego about his music. He was always friendly and supportive of me. It was like I was family because I was a pianist who had played with Cannonball Adderley. I think I continue the legacy of Cannonball and Joe Zawinul by bringing the feeling of the blues and soul in my music. There was also warmth to the music of both Cannonball and Zawinul that I hope I infuse into my music.
AC: What do you think of smooth jazz?
MW: I’m fine with smooth jazz. I like a lot of the players and enjoy playing with them. It’s not my main thing, but I like any music where players are playing their hearts out, and smooth jazz players do that. I’ve played a lot with Kenny G and Dave Koz, among others, and they’re all very talented, committed musicians.
AC: Tell us about your friend Michael Clark. What made you decide to put a project together with him?
MW: Mike Clark and I met in the 70’s in the San Francisco Bay Area. We were both on the scene there. I heard Mike on his first gig with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters at Keystone Berkeley. We started playing together regularly in the 80’s when we were both in New York City. We had a regular trio with bassist Jon Burr. We all lived within a couple of blocks of each other on the Upper West Side.
AC: The American press says, “When two of the best musicians on the planet decide to combine their talents, they create a band without boundaries.” What does that mean?
MW: We played as a trio on our own and also with a bunch of crazy singers. We’d play with whoever hired us, playing live in clubs and recording a lot. After the gig we’d stay up all night drinking beer and playing cards or monopoly. I moved to LA in 1988 to be musical director for Arsenio Hall TV show. I returned to NYC in the late 90’s, and we began playing together again. Mike Clark played and recorded with me in my band, Impure Thoughts, and I played with him in his band. A year or so ago we decided to get together and form our own band, Wolff & Clark Expedition, so we could pursue the music we love, jazz influenced by blues and funk. We decided the band would be the two of us as the main members. We choose whoever else we want to record or play with for specific gigs or projects.
AC: What can people expect from the Wolff and Clark CD? Who are some of the artists featured?
We push the boundaries of music by not respecting limitations of styles. We play freely and what we feel. We can play with a trio, like our first album, ‘Wolff & Clark Expedition” on Random Act Records, featuring the great bassist Chip Jackson. We deconstructed known tunes, funky ones like ‘Mercy Mercy Mercy’ by Zawinul, and ‘For the Love of Money’ by the Ojay’s, more soul jazz with ‘Song for My Father’ by Horace Silver, jazz standards like Cole Porter’s ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’ a really gospel song by Nat Adderley ‘Hummin’ and modern originals by Chip Jackson, Mike Clark, and me. We have also played gigs with horns and could play with any instruments.
We begin our touring with a concert at Dizzy’s Coca Cola Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. We then tour in March and April in the United States: New Orleans, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Oakland, Denver and other cities. We hope to tour in Europe and Asia in the summer and next fall. Our March US tour will feature the amazing Jeff Berlin on bass.
AC: Personal plans?
MW: I want to record a solo piano album in the next year. I’m also working on using cross rhythms in my playing and composing. And I want Wolff & Clark Expedition to record another album and utilize some horns on it.
AC: Advice to young people who want a career in music?
MW: I teach at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City. My advice to all students is to learn everything technical they can. Learn to write music on computer writing programs, to record on Logic Audio and Pro Tools, to make sure to compose their own music, to master the use of the internet and social media in the music business, and to practice and become great on their instrument.
In order to have a career in music now, the musician has to be able to do many things in order to cobble together a decent income. Play, compose, teach, arrange, publish, record, engineer – learn to do everything competently and some things extremely well.
MW: As far as a musical legacy, I would like to be appreciated for my playing, the energy and originality of approach, and the quality of my compositions. I am currently writing a book on my BIG IDEAS about music, and I hope that will leave a mark.
Edited by Susan Acieves