Michael Wolff has worn many hats in the music business. As a jazz pianist and composer he worked with Cal Tjader, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter, and he spent five years as Nancy Wilson’s music director. The mid-1980s found Wolff branching out as a comedian and singer-songwriter, which paved the way towards his high profile 5-year gig as television bandleader on The Arsenio Hall Show. He’s since composed soundtracks for several films, including The Tic Code directed by the actress (and his wife) Polly Draper. More recently, Wolff has sharpened his acting chops playing the geeky accordion-playing dad on Nickelodeon’s popular rock comedy television show The Naked Brother’s Band, starring Wolff’s sons Nat and Alex. We sat one night over a bowl of pistachios listening to records and talking about his latest release, Joe’s Strut (Wrong Records).
1. Nancy Wilson
“Never Will I Marry” (from Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, Capitol). Wilson, vocals; Cannonball Adderley, alto saxophone; Nat Adderley, cornet; Joe Zawinul, piano; Sam Jones, bass; Louis Hayes, drums. Recorded in 1961.
Before: [starts to sing along]. I know this really well. It’s the hippest record with that yellow dress on the cover. I always loved Cannonball and Nancy Wilson. I played with both of them so this is like Alex Haley and Roots for me. So many memories. I used to play this with Nancy all the time. It’s not the easiest song to play; the form is weird and harmonically it doesn’t lay easily. It was always hard but fun. I was the last pianist with Cannonball’s band and when I first joined I’d grown up loving Miles and Cannon, so I knew all the music. The drummer Roy McCurdy took me over to Joe Zawinul’s house. I said to Joe that I had figured out how to comp for Nat but with Cannonball we were playing in C and he’s playing in F sharp. I couldn’t figure out what to do. And Joe said [in Viennese accent] “if you figure it out call me, man. I never figured out what to do for that guy.” Cannonball was such a great musician, and these days he’s underrated. Anything that’s too happy gets underrated. I remember when I got in the band I asked can we play “Moment’s Notice,” can we play “Giant Steps”? And he said “We don’t play other people’s music in our band. Why don’t you write me some music?” So I wrote a lot of things that we used to play but he died before we could record it.
Nancy is such a great jazz singer but she refers to herself as a song stylist. She really swings and she sings in tune. Like Miles Davis, she doesn’t have any fake vibrato. I worked as her music director for five years and she never had a bad night musically. I think when I first joined her I was playing way too busy for the first couple years. I was 26 and I just wanted to solo. But after playing with Nancy night after night it opened my mind to what accompanying was about. As sophisticated as Nancy is–and she can hear anything, she plays the piano too–she’s a great actress with the way she delivers a lyric. But there’s always the blues under there. This is a great cut; classic, soulful and warm.
2. Aaron Parks
“Riddle Me This” (from Invisible Cinema, Blue Note). Parks, piano; Mike Moreno, guitar, Matt Penman, bass; Eric Harland, drums. Recorded in 2008.
It’s interesting to have that melody doubled with the piano and guitar. I know it’s not Monty Alexander but it’s the sort of orchestration he would do. That was interesting harmonically. Great groove, funky. It’s along the lines of the things that Ahmad Jamal did but it sounds like a modern person. A lot of triadic stuff and the way it moved harmonically was pretty cool. I’d have to sit at a piano and work it out to know what it was. It reminds me of E.S.T. or The Bad Plus, one of those really organized trios. I liked it. Who is it?
After: I’ve heard the name. Kind of interesting. I’d like to hear other stuff that he’s done. Oh yeah, Eric Harland. Very cool. What did you think of it?
3. Carlos Franzetti
“Taxi Driver” (from Film Noir, Sunnyside). City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra; Andy Fusco, saxophone solo. Recorded in 2007.
That sounded like a movie theme, like Johnny Mandel or someone like that. It’s somebody who really got their money out of a II-V progression [chuckles, sings along with the theme]. The way the guy orchestrated it, it seems more like a jazz writer than a film writer, but there were so many film guys who were also jazz guys. There are a couple of cool dissonances in the bridge that were surprising.
After: I don’t know Carlos Franzetti. [looks at the CD’s title] That’s a great idea. So that was written by Bernard Herrmann? That’s cool. It sounds kind of old the way it was recorded: very bright and not rich, a little brittle to me. Nice performance, though. I’d like to conduct that orchestra and hear them play my shit [laughter]. I think a lot of film people go [to central Europe] because it’s cheaper. There’s no union. Or they do it by T-1 lines. But it’d be more fun to be there in the room. That’s funny because my son Nat, who’s almost 14, has been watching Taxi Driver a lot. He studies all these movies ’cause he’s an actor too. He loves that movie but I haven’t watched it in a long time. [imitating De Niro as Travis Bickle] “You talkin’ to me?”
4. The Bad Plus
“Variation d’Apollon” (from For All I Care, Universal). Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; David King, drums. Released in 2008.
Before: You’re playing me some interesting stuff. It might be Brad Mehldau or somebody like that. It’s really beautiful. Such a motor rhythm, straight ahead baroque-y thing. It reminds me of some things that George Shearing used to do. It seems like a guy with a lot of time on his hands to work all that out. It’s not seat of the pants, “1-2-3 go” the way I like to do it. This seems written out, though it might not be. The time was very straight. But it’s good to have that because you can concentrate on those really cool chords, those major chords with the 3rd in the bass. I liked it.
After: I thought their first trio record was really exciting and I heard them at the Vanguard. They were hugely popular for a minute. I think they had a big concept with a rock and roll producer and a cool approach, though I couldn’t tell where the piano player was coming from a lot of the time, whether he was really a jazz player. But I haven’t heard ’em in a long time. In the beginning I thought this might have been Mehldau, but Mehldau would have tee’d off. This dude was so contained.
5. Teddy Wilson
“Liza” (from Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra 1934-1935, Classics). Wilson, piano. Recorded in 1935.
Before: Sounds like Tatum to me. [chuckles at some of the runs] This is some awesome piano playing. I mean, the stride is hard, but then he did those 10ths. Modern guys can’t do this. At first I thought Tatum but then I didn’t hear the classic Tatum licks. Oscar Peterson did some stuff like that. I have some Tatum stuff that I listen to a lot. It’s on my iPod and it’s got some hiss on it, which strangely helps my tinnitus. I’m left handed so I could always move my left hand pretty well, but to really hit the stride stuff like that, I have a fake stride, which keeps it more within the octave. My hands can’t quite hit the 10ths. This person was totally comfortable. The right hand here was great but it doesn’t blow me away ’cause I can do that.
After: I heard him a lot but I wouldn’t remember him like that. I heard him at Sweet Basil’s in New York. And when I was a kid my dad took me to hear him at the Trident in Sausalito. He was playing with Art Taylor in a trio. I think when he was playing with a trio it wasn’t this style. He wouldn’t do the left hand with the trio as much. Tatum did, which is why he was better solo, in a way. It’s like hearing Horowitz or Rubinstein or somebody.
6. Alan Pasqua/Dave Carpenter/Peter Erskine
“Dear Old Stockholm” (from Standards, Fuzzy Music). Pasqua, piano; Carpenter, bass; Erskine, drums. Recorded in 2007.
Before: Subdued. Oh, that’s so hip. [listens for a while] That’s the hippest shit. He’s kind of playing with this older, laid-back brushes style, and then he plays with the soft pedal so he’s got that color, that Bill Evans color and those hip 7th and 9th intervals. And he can really swing, like Hank Jones or somebody. That’s the touch. I don’t know who it is but it’s somebody who’s got all the modern shit together. Very cool. It’s all subdued but the fire is underneath. And the touch never goes out, it’s very round. It seems like it’s from my era of player, the kind of things we like to play in New York. It’s not Tommy Flanagan but it’s got that elegant, sophisticated style of piano playing. It’s also rhythmically strong, his right hand. Not tepid. I like it. The tune is familiar to me, a cool minor thing.
After: Alan is just so great. He’s got all the Herbie shit and the Bill Evans shit, but he’s made it into his own thing. I remember him as being one of the synthy electric guys. How old is he, in his 40s or 50s? It’s a different value system from some of the younger guys. The whole rhythm section is great. Erskine is awesome. I love him. I’d like to play with him. What a great album. Very pretty touch. That’s more what I’m into.
7. Yellowjackets with Mike Stern
“Yahoo” (from Lifecycle, Heads Up). Russell Ferrante, keyboards; Jimmy Haslip, bass; Marcus Baylor, drums; Bob Mintzer, reeds; Mike Stern, guitar. Released in 2008.
Before: Weird time, like 11 maybe? That’s nice. These guys love Weather Report. It’s the kind of stuff Chick would write. I like it a lot. Interesting time signatures, and then sometime the melody alternates back and forth between piano, synth and guitar. Pretty cool. It doesn’t feel like Chick Corea but it sounds like it. The feel was more like laid back Weather Report. Very, very flowing, easy playing over all that shit underneath, breathing through it.
After: Is this new? Mintzer and Stern, that’s a great combination; fun, very hip and very musical.
8. Boz Scaggs
“Invitation” (from Speak Low, Decca). Scaggs, guitar, vocal; Gil Goldstein, keyboards, arrangements; Alex Acuna, drums, percussion; Bob Sheppard, saxophone; bass clarinet; flutes; Scott Colley, bass; Mike Mainieri, vibes; Carol Robbins, harp; Lou Marini, Aaron Heick, bass flute; Lawrence Feldman, alto flute; Shane Shanahan, tablas. Released in 2008.
Before: I’d like to know who that singer is. Sounds like Sonny Rollins singing [chuckles]. Cool arrangement, interesting. I like the percussion and vibes. Never my favorite tune to play on but it sounds good. That’s nice, is that an alto flute? Sounds like it could be Bobby Hutcherson. Doesn’t sound modern, it sounds timeless. It’s not Grady Tate, is it? Nice. I love the little subtle things.
After: Oh man! Boz, never in a million years would I have thought it was that dude. Very hip arrangements by Gil. I just saw Gil two days ago at the Wayne Shorter concert at Carnegie Hall. He does a lot of fluttery stuff. Very nice piano, very hip the way he fills in the textures.
9. Johnny Griffin & Martial Solal
“Neutralisme” (from In and Out, Dreyfus Jazz). Griffin, tenor saxophone; Solal, piano. Released in 2000.
Before: [chuckles during the call and response exchanges]. Interesting, dense piece of music. Sounds like a big band writer writing for small group, somebody who really wanted to write it out. The improvisation in the middle, I like. They were listening to each other. There were points where the sax sounded like it was laughing and they were really interacting. I like that a lot. The piece, I’d have to listen to it a few more times to see what was going on with that. It was very interesting. The pianist was very precise, nothing between the lines. Nothing implied, nothing slurred. The sax to me was more slippery-slidey, a little more open or vulnerable. Great playing. At a certain point it’s about liking a personality. If you can play, you’re just being who you are and responding to what you like.
After: Interesting combination. I wouldn’t have expected that. Who wrote it, Martial Solal? He’s heavy. He sounds like a classical pianist. The French have their own thing.
10. Arve Henriksen
“Migration” (from Cartography, ECM). Henriksen, trumpet; Jan Bang, samples; Audun Kleive, percussion, programming; Heldge Sunde, string arrangements; programming; Eivind Aarset, guitars; Lars Danielsson, bas; Erik Honore, synthesizer, samples; Araude Mercier, treatments. Released in 2009.
Before: Oh man, that is cool. I love the shaky way he’s playing the trumpet and the textures underneath. The trumpeter is somebody who likes Miles but it’s like they got the dudes from Pashtun. I don’t know where these guys are from, but it’s some hip shit; the vibrato and the quarter-tones, the cool little samples and colors. [Mark] Isham could do something like this with samples and loops. It’s really textural. This could be a movie soundtrack; a scene from some dark place where some dark shit is happening [laughter]. Really evocative. I really love it. It’s a painting, you know? In a Silent Way changed everything. This is generations after that but it’s from there. The holes are not all filled in. They leave space.
After: Who produced it? It’s really cool textural stuff. It’s spooky. Is it jazz? Yeah, I guess so. It’s coming from there. It experiments the way that Radiohead and Brian Eno experiment. It’s a great thing to listen to late at night.
11. Joe Zawinul & The Zawinul Syndicate
“Scarlet Woman” (from 75, Heads Up). Zawinul, keyboards, vocoder; Sabine Kabongo, vocals, percussion; Alegre Correa, guitar, vocals; Linley Marthe, bass; Paco Sery, drums, kalimba; Jorge Bezerra, percussion, vocals; Aziz Sahmaoui, percussion, vocals. Recorded in 2007.
Before: Sounds like Joe. I love that feel. It’s sort of go-go, like Ricky Wellman or somebody like that on drums. That’s so cool. Joe came up with all that stuff; the sounds, the keyboard and that groove. Sounds like a vocoder. They do that cross stick on the snare, gives it that feel. Is that the Zawinul Syndicate? Yeah, I miss that guy. He was such a soulful player, but a tough guy too, bluesy and soulful. He would show me stuff on the piano: he’d say “Here’s a new chord, Wolff, check this out.” He had a gigantic ego but in a nice way. He was a really good guy. He took the orchestra and put it on his synthesizer. He loved those grooves. To me, that Weather Report stuff is the hippest shit of all the fusion stuff. Zawinul just had this idea of how to do music where it wasn’t all in a row. You did little bits of it and you let it breathe. You don’t have to tell the whole story; you don’t have to give it all up. You can just give it a lot of air. As organized as he was he probably drove the guys in his band crazy because he was such a task master. But then there was a lot of freedom within that. He really used Wayne in an interesting way on the soprano. There were a million different things that were cool about him.
After: That’s great. I love this music. I just see that with the music that I respond to and that I love and that I want to play, I feel a lineage. And I think that Miles Davis was the good virus, the people that came before him and the people that came after him and all the connections and Cannonball and Coltrane, there’s a certain thing that comes from the tradition. The blues underneath it, the funk, it’s how I want to perform. I mean, I’ll listen to everything. But for me as a player, I feel what I need to do is coming from that. When I came up it was to try to do something new. And then I think it changed in the 1980s where it was trying to recreate what had been done before. Like Bush and Cheney and neo-conservatives, it was that way in art, it was that way in architecture. And now with Obama, maybe there’s a chance to actually change it, and maybe society will change that way too. So I feel like musically, once that ‘80s stuff happened–and I’m not against it, I love that people respected Monk– but my line was I don’t think Monk could have won the Monk competition. I remember going to a black college with Cannonball and doing a clinic and he was talking about jazz and a student said: “No Cannonball, this is black classical music.” Cannon said, you mean I been playing the wrong shit all these years?
This piece originally appeared in JazzTimes in 2009.