Home for the Holidays

Pianist Michael Wolff brings his musical family to meet his hometown family for Thanksgiving.

“Hi, I’m Franz Liszt,” joked pianist Michael Wolff, seated with some of the world’s best jazz musicians at a table by the swift-flowing waters of the River Inn, the Tyrolean Alps in the background. Wolff was in Austria as part of the Outreach Orchestra, performing as Liszt in the avant-garde opera Rosemary Brown Beta Download, but the New Orleans native was talking about his experiences growing up by another river in another country.

“My father’s family is from Indianola, Mississippi, and my mother’s family was from New Orleans,” says Wolff. “When I was a kid I lived in New Orleans. We moved to Berkeley, California, when I was about 9, but during the summers I would come back to New Orleans to stay with my aunt and uncle. That’s where I really started playing. When I was about 13, one of my older cousins took me to Al Hirt’s club, where he had a big band that played on Saturday afternoons. It was a really good, swinging band, a (Count) Basie, Thad Jones kind of thing. They let me sit in, then they invited me back the next week and I ended up playing the gig all summer.”

Wolff is making a return visit this weekend to Snug Harbor, showcasing material from his just-released Dangerous Vision (Artemis) with a quartet that includes one of his partners in the Outreach program, tabla master Badal Roy. “I’m bringing my whole family,” he says. “We’re going to have Thanksgiving with my aunt ’Nita, she lives about two blocks from the Pontchartrain (Hotel) on St. Charles Avenue. She’s a great inspiration; she tap dances and plays the piano, she loves music.”

Wolff’s sound is a fascinating amalgam of jazz themes and world music rhythms played with the energy and emotion of a contemporary rock group. His formidable piano technique indicates classical training, but the energy behind it comes from the street.

“My parents made me take classical lessons, but I always wanted to play jazz,” he explains. “My dad came from the town where B.B. King, Albert King and Muddy Waters were from. My father had perfect pitch and he played clarinet, saxophones and flute. He wasn’t a professional musician, but he was very talented. We had a piano, and when I was very little he taught me the blues on the piano. I was playing ‘St. Louis Blues’ when I was 4 years old.”

Wolff’s career has included a wide range of situations, from playing in bands led by Cal Tjader, Airto and Flora Purim, Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson and Sonny Rollins, to working as the musical director for The Arsenio Hall Show. Wolff also recorded with the late Warren Zevon, and has led his own group, Impure Thoughts, for several years.

“I feel like I’m in my prime now,” he says. “I have all these influences but now I just kind of play what comes out.”

Wolff’s collaborations with Roy’s tablas are a fascinating part of his overall sound: “The first thing I learned was blues, and I grew up listening to it in the South during the 1960s. When I started studying Indian music, I realized that the way Indian musicians bend the notes is similar to what I heard in the blues. Badal is absolutely unique. He doesn’t play tablas like a tabla dude or like a jazz guy or like a drum guy, he’s just Badal Roy.

“When I decided to put this band together I knew his name from On the Corner and other Miles Davis records. I knew I wanted tablas in the band. He came over to my house and I had him play all these different beats. I recorded them, then I wrote songs to the beats.

“The piano is a percussion instrument,” Wolff says. “That’s how I look at it; it’s called drumming on tones. I’m playing with all these percussionists, and I’m going to play it like a drum. When I was a kid I loved playing drums, so I think a lot of my approach, as much as I’m into harmony and melody, is rhythm.”

Wolff’s fascination with rhythm stems back to his earliest experiences with street parades as a youngster in New Orleans. “I was in New Orleans the summer that Louis Armstrong died (in 1971),” he recalls. “My cousin took me down to the funeral. It was the first time I listened to a jazz funeral. I really got into the brass bands. I did a score for a film, Dark Angel, and used some of the New Orleans brass band players. I also used Little Queenie, Leigh Harris, to sing the main theme.” Wolff has asked Harris and some of his other musician friends from New Orleans to sit in at Snug Harbor in what could indeed turn out to be a memorable homecoming.

Gambit Weekly, John Swenson, November 23, 2004