A winner from top to bottom

When pianist/composer Michael Wolff formed his Impure Thoughts ensemble, his music took a giant leap forward. Wolff has always been an exciting pianist; his clarity and clean approach as an improviser have kept root connections to the blues and jazz traditions while incorporating everything from pop, soul, and funk to vanguard classical approaches.

On Dangerous Vision, Wolff and Impure Thoughts go deeper and wider into the world of rhythm. Along with bassist John B. Williams, tabla master Badal Roy, and drummer Victor Jones, Brazilian percussion legend Airto Moreira has been added to replace reedman Alex Foster. Organic groove consciousness underscores the proceedings here in every facet of the band’s performance. To amplify this, Wolff has taken a page from his former employer Cannonball Adderley’s playbook and recorded the set live in the studio in front of an invited audience. Nowhere is this more apparent than the disc’s first two cuts, where hip-hop drummer Mike Clark subs for Jones.

The title track borrows the bassline from an earlier Wolff composition called “Bengal,” and takes it off into a knotty vamp where a three-note groove gets expanded and turned inside out between Wolff’s acoustic and Rhodes piano and the triple line of percussion rooted in that hip-hop rhythm. Next up is a stunning re-visioning of Nat Adderley’s classic “Work Song,” where Roy’s tabla and Clark’s skittering backbeat simmer and pop underneath Wolff’s statement of the tune’s head, slowly and purposefully, in contrast to Williams’ insistent bass throb. When the Rhodes enters, the tune slowly opens out from a simmering tension to a funky soul-jazz burner that never quite goes over the edge.

Another standout is John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” Here, Airto’s multivalent use of stringed percussion, Williams’ popping, mantra-like bassline, and Roy’s hypnotic tabla provide the ground for Wolff’s stunning solo work in the middle and upper registers. The new approach to Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” with its beautiful calypso groove, is extrapolated by Wolff’s use of Abdullah Ibrahim’s folksy melodic interplay and bright chromatic chord voicings. And on it goes into the deceptively simple harmonic invention in Wolff’s “Heart and Soul” and the killer East Indian swagger of “Rupak.” Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo’s “Soul Sauce” closes the set (it’s a tune Wolff performed nightly as Cal Tjader’s pianist).

Latin, Indian, and Afro-Cuban polyrhythms crisscross in the center of Wolff’s melodic articulation of the theme. He rides it just above the fray and then takes it down into the vamp, punching through and expanding it harmonically while never losing its center. Dangerous Vision is an exciting, compelling ride into the unruly heart of Michael Wolff & Impure Thoughts’ restless, adventurous, and darkly poetic sound world. A winner from top to bottom.

ALL MUSIC GUIDE, Thom Jurek, 11/15/04