Clap for the Wolff man
For Michael Wolff & Impure Thoughts, it’s all about playing live jazz. “I like being in the moment, improvising,” said the pianist and composer. “We have a structure, but we’re really influenced by each other and the audience. I think it’s really exciting.” So exciting, in fact, that Wolff and his band recorded their latest release, “Dangerous Vision,” live in front of an audience over three nights in the studio. “I was the last pianist with Cannonball Adderley’s band. Recording live was something he liked to do. He would have an audience in the studio and have a bar and food — it would be like a party,” Wolff said from his Manhattan home in a phone interview last week. “I get self-conscious in the studio with headphones on, start to worry about everything. With an audience there, I just played for them.” Released in November, the CD features five songs written by Wolff and four covers, including John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas.”
Wolff and Impure Thoughts move effortlessly through an eclectic mix of music — from hip-hop rhythms to world beats, funky soul to calypso grooves. “The whole band rose to the occasion,” Wolff said of the recording sessions. “The band and I play best live. ‘St. Thomas’ is pure joy coming from the piano. That whole arrangement just came together when we played it.” Wolff, percussionist Badal Roy, drummer Mike Clark and bass player John B. Williams will play everything from “Dangerous Thoughts,” as well as tracks from their first two discs, “Intoxicate” (2002) and “Impure Thoughts” (2000), during shows at 8 and 10 p.m. at Murphy’s Place Thursday, March 31. Tickets are $8, $10 and $15. But don’t expect the concert to sound like the CD. “It’s not like a Broadway show. I would hate to play the same thing every night the same way,” Wolff said. “We never go in the same direction.” “We like to take known tunes and deconstruct them to get down to the real important part of the piece. I learned this from listening to Miles Davis — get to the essence of a tune so there’s lots of room to improvise,” he said. Wolff’s musical education started when he was 4 years old and his father taught him to play “St. Louis Blues” on the piano. At age 8, he started taking classical piano lessons. He remembers a house full of music. “My parents had a bunch of 45s, and I used to play ‘Love and Marriage’ by Frank Sinatra over and over and over,” he said. “I remember my father playing me music — Sinatra, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Ray Charles. We’d just sit in front of the record player. When I got old enough, he’d take me to see performers. I saw Mel Torme when I was 11 or 12, and he took my younger sisters and I to see Ella Fitzgerald.” It wasn’t long before Wolff began sharing the stage with marquee names. His first gig came at age 19 with Latin jazz pioneer Cal Tjader.
In 1975, he joined Adderley and later Rollins. “I learned so much about performing and being yourself from Cannonball. He said he liked the way I played all over the piano and I should keep doing that no matter what people think. He really gave me confidence,” Wolff said. “Sonny would play whatever he felt at the moment. He was wild. I learned to shoot from the hip with him.” Wolff also was the pianist and musical director for Nancy Wilson. “I learned a lot watching her perform and how she dealt with people. It was a lot of on-the-job-training, conducting an orchestra, arranging music, singing duets with her.” For five years, Wolff was the musical director on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” He then recorded some solo works before Impure Thoughts formed. He’s also dabbled in movies. His wife, actress Polly Draper, wrote and directed a movie, “The Naked Brothers Band,” which stars their two sons, Nat, 10, and Alex, 7. “Nat is just a prodigious singer-songwriter, and Alex is an amazing drummer,” said Wolff, who has a bit part in the film. “It’s a mockumentary, but my wife used real people. It’s an amazing cast — Uma Thurman, Julianne Moore, Tony Shalhoub. Nat does a duet with Cyndi Lauper. Nancy Wilson covers one of his songs.” Look for it later this year.
TOLEDO FREE PRESS, Vicki L. Kroll