They Incorporate a Heavy, 1970s-Style Fusion Vibe Into Their Treatments of Originals as Well as Standards

Michael Wolff can’t escape the ’70s Years of playing straight-ahead jazz with All-time jazz greats including Cannonball Adderly, Cal Tjader and Sonny Rollins couldn’t erode Michael Wolff’s enduring love for the jazz he grew up listening to as a child prodigy in Memphis. “My formative years were the ’70s,” said the pianist, composer and leader, who brings his band, Impure Thoughts, to the Firefly Club on April 2. “Groups like Return to Forever, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, electric Miles…that’s the music I grew up with. “When you’re young, whatever it is that draws you in, you never get over it. And that was some of the music that initially drew me in.” Not surprising, then, that Wolff and Impure Thoughts, which includes Badal Roy on tablas, percussionist Airto Moreira, John B. Williams on bass and Victor Jones on drums, incorporate a heavy, 1970s-style fusion vibe into their treatments of originals as well as standards. “If I do a jazz standard, I’m going to filter it through my point of view relating to where I am today. It’s like what Picasso would say about his portraits: ‘I just paint how I feel about the person.’ That’s the way I approach being a jazz musician.” Wolff has quietly established himself as one of the busiest and most successful contemporary jazz artists. He was the bandleader and musical director on the “Arsenio Hall Show” during the early 1990s and translated that success into a series of film scores, while releasing eight albums as a leader.

Always, though, is that undercurrent of 1970s fusion, which Wolff sees as a unifying factor that brings non-jazz types into the fold and allows them to encounter his backbeat-fueled versions of Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way” or Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” “When I was with Cal Tjader, we had every age group coming to our gigs,” Wolff said. “We also had Latin people, white people, black people, football players movie stars like Marlon Brando, Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen, and hippies. “We had everybody coming out to see the band, and I always thought that was the way music should be. If you’re playing music that can touch people on different levels, then you’re really doing something important.” With that in mind, Wolff recorded “Dangerous Vision,” his third disc with Impure Thoughts live in the studio in front of audiences ranging between 20 and 30 people. Wolff said the idea was to simulate a concert setting without losing the ability to achieve “studio” quality recordings of the songs.

“We played complete sets of music, instead of playing many takes over and over again,” he said. “That way we — and the audience — really got into the groove of a performance.” Like the best jam bands or kindred jazz spirits like Medeski, Martin and Wood or the Bad Plus, Wolff and his band find grooves and settle in for the long haul, extrapolating new and inventive ideas within those grooves without ever losing the main themes. In their hands, even shopworn melodies like “A Love Supreme” open up and find new life in these fresh arrangements. “Wherever we play, whenever we get together we feel like we’re creating some magic,” Wolff said. “I’m as excited about music now as when I started out. I feel like now I’m in my prime in terms of having all this experience and still having the energy of a young person.”

ANN ARBOR NEWS, Will Stewart, March 31, 2005