Improvisation fires up Michael Wolff’s ‘Dangerous Vision’

The title cut of pianist Michael Wolff’s “Dangerous Vision” sets the groove for the entire set. A droning piano riff from his original “Bengal” begins, and then tabla player Badal Roy makes a subtle entrance before Mike Clark’s drums bring in the funk. Wolff is suddenly free to improvise with vivid chords, percussive single notes that rise to lightninglike lines. Suddenly it’s a new tune. It doesn’t really sound dangerous, but it’s a big departure from most of what you hear today on jazz CDs.”

A lot of this release arose from improvisation in our live sets but I had never been able to capture that in a recording because I always get inhibited trying to play the right thing. We do one tune 10 times,” Wolff said in a phone interview from his Southern California home. “This time we brought a live audience to the session and did two complete one-hour sets each night. We chose the best from the live recordings and didn’t do anything except mix them.” Wolff and Impure Thoughts play the Triple Door Monday night.

What the audience will get is a reflection but not a duplication of the new CD, which is selling well and bringing in rave reviews. The lineup of Impure Thoughts has changed since Wolff last played Seattle. Drummer Victor Jones (who is featured on much of the CD) has other commitments, and saxophonist Alex Foster isn’t always available because he moved to Greece. But two essential players remain. “I knew I wanted tablas because they were in the movie ‘Help’ and I loved them. There’s something about those drums that is jazzy and sexy,” Wolff said.”

I called Badal Roy, and after he checked me out he came over and opened his tabla case and it smelled like curry. He began playing and I joined him. We immediately hit it off.” In addition to Roy’s tasty and individualist tablas (at times they sound like Nigerian talking drums on “Dangerous Vision”), the band includes bassist John B. Williams, who has played with Wolff since the pianist was vocalist Nancy Wilson’s arranger, band director and pianist. Williams was also with Wolff as he directed the “Arsenio Hall Show” band for its entire run. The newest member of Impure Thoughts is drummer Mike Clark, who gives the band a ’70s kick. Wolff mentions the Mahavisnu Orchestra as a sample of the feel he wanted to achieve. And Clark’s impressive history arose from those times.

“Mike was on the Headhunters albums and kind of invented the mix of funk and jazz,” Wolff said. “On one Headhunters tune, ‘Actual Proof,’ he blew everybody’s mind because they had never heard the drums played that way.” Wolff’s professional career includes membership in the bands of colossal jazz players, several of whom had the world beat roots that are evident on the pianist’s last three CDs. The pianist joined the group of Brazilian percussionist Airto (who also plays on “Dangerous Vision).”

He also played numerous concerts and dances as a member of Latin jazz bandleader Cal Tjader’s band. Wolff was also a member of saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ group, as well as Cannonball Adderley’s. All of these experiences are reflected on “Dangerous Vision.” Impure Thoughts gives Tjader’s signature tune, “Soul Sauce” (written by another giant of Latin and jazz fusion, Dizzy Gillespie) a dash of far-out flavoring. Rollins’ “St. Thomas” has the free improvisation associated with the sax player. It’s in a different key, incorporates another tune and seldom lands on the original melody. And Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” is moved south, close to Memphis and New Orleans where Wolff was raised. It cooks under a blazing sun and kicks up earth like field hands at a Friday night dance.

Not copying the tunes of his mentors but bringing them to life with fresh approaches is Wolff’s way of showing appreciation without becoming nostalgic. “I just wanted to deal in my own way with those pieces,” Wolff explains. “The people I played with — Sonny, Cal Tjader, Cannonball — weren’t about the past and that’s my point of view too.”

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Roberta Penn, January 7, 2005