Michael Wolff a Master Entertainer at SFJAZZ Show

By Jim Harrington
Oakland Tribune

Michael Wolff spent the first part of his career surrounded by jazz legends.

The Louisiana-born, Berkeley-raised pianist was just 19 when he broke into the business as a member of Cal Tjader’s band in the early ’70s. A few years later, he made his recording debut alongside the great Cannonball Adderley. He went on to perform with Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and several other A-list jazz stars.

The 54-year-old former UC Berkeley student, who now lives in New York, surely learned much from those undisputed jazz masters. In retrospect, however, his greatest tutor might have even been late-night TV host Arsenio Hall. As the band leader and musical director for “The Arsenio Hall Show,” which ran from 1989 to 1994, Wolff spent countless hours watching the host work the crowds. He obviously paid attention, for the one thing that truly differentiates Wolff from most other jazz musicians is his ability to entertain.

During his homecoming gig Saturday afternoon at the Florence Gould Theatre at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, Wolff proved to be one of the most engaging all-around performers in the jazz game.

The show, part of SFJAZZ’s Spring Season, included its share of fine musicianship, stellar improvisation and memorable tunes. Yet, what made really it special was everything else Wolff did to make sure his fans had a good Jazz pianist Michael Wolff performs at the time. He was witty and funny between songs, at one point Florence Gould Theater at the Legion of going into a stand-up comedy routine that would have Honor in San Francisco impressed Arsenio, and he showed a great deal of enthusiasm and energy for both the crowd and the music. He even danced onstage, something veteran concertgoers might have believed was against the law at jazz shows.

Wolff came to town in support of the newly released “Joe’s Strut,” a work named in honor of the pianist’s old friend and fusion-jazz giant Joe Zawinul, who died in 2007. That CD features a two-saxophone quintet on five cuts and a regular piano trio on the remaining three numbers. Wolff led a standard piano trio during Saturday’s concert, which meant that some of the “Strut” cuts performed would lack the twin saxophone power found on the recorded versions. Still, if you didn’t know the record, it would have been impossible to tell that anything was missing — all of the music felt very full and passionately alive.

The pianist had enlisted the right men for the occasion: San Mateo County drummer Akira Tana and Berkeley bassist Peter Barshay. This trio doesn’t perform together regularly, but it jelled in about two minutes and grew stronger as the 90-minute set progressed.

An early highlight was the trio’s elastic take on the old standard “Autumn Leaves.” The three players opened the tune by milking a slinky, slightly funky groove, built on a tightly coiled bass line, and then moved at a leisurely gait through a pastoral patch, before unexpectedly bringing the number to a close in bawdy nightclub fashion.

That ending served as a proper segue to the title track from “Joe’s Strut.” The original composition lived up to its name; in pace and swagger, it was very much a “Strut” and it also held true to Zawinul’s vision of fusion music. It was a truly rocking number, one that found Wolff channeling his inner Jerry Lee Lewis and bringing “Great Balls of Fire” to the keys.

The afternoon’s most memorable moment — although, not its best musically — came during the encore when Wolff’s trio covered the Temptations’ mighty “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” During that number, the pianist coaxed audience members out of their seats to play a game of follow the leader — he got them to clap along, dance and sing to the classic soul cut. It was a sight I’d never seen at a jazz concert, and one that makes me want to catch this wonderful entertainer the next time he’s in town.

Arsenio would be proud.

Reach Jim Harrington at jharrington@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read his Concert Blog at http://blogs.mercury news.com/aei/category/concerts/.