Concert Preview — Reading Eagle, PA

Think of Michael Wolff as a musical polyglot who likes to play things against the grain.

One minute he’s a superb jazz stylist with what The New York Times calls “near impeccable good taste, technical facility and lyrical inventiveness,” the next he’s a bumbling, accordion-playing dad on a hit TV show starring his two young sons.

Take a look at the 10 CDs he’s listening to right now, on Can a jazz musician really find joy in Ravel (conducted by Pierre Boulez), Bach and Stravinsky, Warren Zevon and Radiohead … oh, and Miles Davis and Ray Charles?

Of course, if that jazz musician is Michael Wolff.

A native of New Orleans, Wolff has music in his blood, all kinds of music. He played blues on the piano, four-hands, with his father and studied classical piano at age 8. His list of influences reads like a who’s who of musical history.

“B.B. King, Albert King, you name it, we played it,” Wolff said. “But I’ve been influenced by so many: Ray Charles, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, the Beatles, Leonard Bernstein and many more.”

A listener can hear McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Ramsey Lewis, Jaki Byard and others in his piano playing, but like any good musician, his own personality emerges at every turn.

“You have to play music you love,” Wolff said. “You can’t be in it for the money. You have to be dedicated to the music; you play it by default.”

When he played with Cannonball Adderly in the musically explosive 1970s, jazz was influencing and being influenced by rock, pop, funk, disco, the avant-garde and more. Some call it a fallow period for jazz. Wolff ate it up.

”It was the best kind of onthe-job training,” he said. “You played every night of the week, you had a chance to work things through, smooth the edges of a tune for a small, dedicated audience.”

But things are different now. Today, musicians play a night here, a night there.

Wolff will play one of those one-nighters tonight at 7 at Gerald Veasley’s Jazz Base in the Sheraton Reading Hotel, Wyomissing. The shift in jazz performance from extended to shorter engagements probably won’t be on Wolff’s mind. Nor will his Tourette Syndrome. He’ll be focused on his music. Tourette’s causes involuntary multiple motor and vocal tics. The disorder usually begins before age 18. Other well-known sufferers include Dan Ackroyd, Howard Hughes, Howie Mandel and David Beckham.

“When I’m onstage or playing music, it doesn’t get in the way,” he said. “I feel no inhibitions. That’s the way it is with Tourette’s.”

The versatile Wolff, who was born in 1952, is no stranger to television. He might be best known for his stint as bandleader for “The Arsenio Hall Show” from 1989-94.

Wolff is back on television with a new project, “The Naked Brothers Band” on Nickelodeon. It’s a family affair, based on a film of the same name by his wife, actress Polly Draper, and starring their two sons, Alex and Nat. The rock ’n’ roll musical comedy airs Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. Wolff plays the boys’ “childlike and clueless” dad.

“It’s a blast,” Wolff said. “The kids are great. It’s a lot of fun making the show coalesce.”

But Wolff seems truly anchored by the music he grew up with, music that has shaped his temperament: jazz, in all its forms.

Wolff’s latest CD, jazz, JAZZ, jazz is scheduled to be released this summer on Wrong Records. No doubt he’ll feature some of its tunes in tonight’s set. The album’s nine numbers would make a good primer for someone looking to learn what jazz is all about.

Also featuring his longtime bassist John B. Williams and drummer Victor Jones, the album grew from a desire to perform simple, no-nonsense jazz. Most of the songs were done in just one take.

The CD includes Joseph Kosma’s “Autumn Leaves,” with seams of harmony and rhythm filling its melodic gaps; Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” whose blurs evoke a photographic negative; Arthur Hamilton’s “Cry Me a River,” where melody stutters then takes off like a cadenza; and Ron Carter’s “Einbeinstrasse,” a rough and tumble shuffle.

The album sounds like a set in a club: freewheeling, open, bounded only by three musicians’ imaginations.

As Wolff put it, “I said to the guys, ‘Let’s just play.’”

Reading Eagle, Jon Fidler, May 10, 2007