Veteran jazz pianist, band delving into new terrain

Pianist Michael Wolff says his new band, Impure Thoughts, is “like Star Trek” — exploring new frontiers. The group is made up of jazz veterans — including drummer Mike Clark and bassist John B. Williams — who explore the textures of world music in their music. And although Impure Thoughts draws the jazz crowd, the inclusion of tabla player Badal Roy is gaining the act fans who like jam bands. The group’s new album, “Dangerous Visions,” is getting great reviews from all over.

“I nearly feel selfish that I get so much fun out of playing this music,” says Wolff. The Memphis-born pianist couldn’t have come from a much stronger jazz background. He began learning piano at age 8 and was performing with Cal Tjader when he was still a teenager. Later he performed in bands led by Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Rollins. He also performed in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and with jazz/classical violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. “When I was growing up, my two idols were Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley,” says Wolff. Wolff was leader of the house band for the “Arsenio Hall Show” for more than five years and performed on the albums of several rock buddies, including the late Warren Zevon. Wolff attended the University of California in Los Angeles and UC Berkeley during his tenure with Tjader and Adderley. He says the experience was “fantastic.”

On his first gig with Adderley, in 1975, the saxophone great gave his new band member an unusual introduction. After Wolff performed the tunes he’d learned with the band, Adderley told the crowd, “Now we’re going to feature our new pianist, Michael Wolff, playing with himself!” Wolff laughs, adding that Adderley taught him a lot about how to talk with the audience. Wolff followed by performing with Sonny Rollins for two years. “He was one of the greatest improvisers of all time,” says Wolff. “He’d play one tune in one key and the bridge of another tune in another key. He’d play for two hours or 15 minutes — it was whatever he felt.” Wolff was in his mid-20s when he became jazz stylist Nancy Wilson’s musical director, and he had never directed an orchestra before. “When they first offered it to me, I said, “I don’t know,’” says Wolff. “Then I said, ‘How much does it pay?’ And then I said, ‘I’ll get a tuxedo.’” Wolff says Wilson was good to work with and the two have remained friends: In fact, the two are currently planning to make a new album together. After 13 years on the road, Wolff moved to New York City, where he pursued acting and stand-up comedy. In 1989, he got a call from Arsenio Hall, whom Wolff had met when Hall had opened shows for Wilson. Hall wanted Wolff to lead the band on a new late-night show he was going to host. “I told him I didn’t know if I wanted to go to L.A. Then I said, ‘How much does it pay?’ “I’ll be there.’” After Hall decided to quit the show, Wolff rededicated himself to his own work. Wolff married actress Polly Draper, who is currently making a film that features the couple’s sons, Nat, 10, and Alex, 7. “It’s called ‘The Naked Brothers Band,’ and it’s a fake documentary on their band that they’ve had since preschool,” says Wolff. “It’s a family film made by a family.” Hall, Uma Thurman, Wilson, Julianne Moore and Cyndi Lauper all appear in the film, which Wolff expects to be completed this month. Wolff says he feels a real kinship with Knoxville, and he counts Knoxville actor David Keith among his close friends. “And one of the first jazz books I ever read was written by Jerry Coker (the founder of the jazz program at the University of Tennessee),” he says.

KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL, Wayne Bledsoe, April 10, 2005