Wolff Leads Impure Thoughts

When it comes to music, pianist, composer and bandleader Michael Wolff is a free thinker. He likes a lot, from the pop group Radiohead and African tribal music to the Greek modern classicist Yannis Xenakis and his former bebop-based employers Sonny Rollins and Cannonball Adderley. “I’m totally open,” Wolff said, “and I try to play it all on the piano.”

Wolff appears Sunday with his quartet Impure Thoughts, plus guest vibist Joe Locke at the all-star 12th WBGO-FM Jazzathon, held in two shows Sunday at Birdland in New York. Just two of the notables appearing are Montclair piano ace Geri Allen and South Orange tough tenorman Don Braden (see accompanying story). The 52-year-old Wolff — who has played piano from age 4, when his amateur-pianist father taught him W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” — said his awareness of music developed immeasurably when he moved to New York in the early’70s. He lived in a loft with a high school friend, saxophonist Alex Foster, and musicians came by and played almost nonstop. “We played everything, from ‘Giant Steps’ to free (jazz),” he said, noting he also did a lot of listening. “It expanded me, helped get my ear open.” And the experience led to what he’s trying to do with Impure Thoughts. “My conception is a modern/world/funk/jazz group,” he said. The band comprises Wolff, bassist John B. Williams, drummer Mike Clark and tabla player Badal Roy. “I took the jazz piano trio, honor that tradition, and mix it with how I feel today.” The band’s versions of Nat Adderley’s “Work Song,” heard on Wolff’s 2004 CD, “Dangerous Visions” (Artemis), is characteristic. Wolff played the famed blues with the composer and his saxophone-playing brother Cannonball while with the latter’s quintet in 1974-75. He celebrates the song, but finds a fresh way to present it. “I play the melody, one of the greatest ever, but I space it out, leave room, don’t play it straight through,” said Wolff, a native of Victorville, Calif., who has homes in New York and Los Angeles. “Then Mike Clark plays a kind-of New Orleans beat with brushes on the snare,” rather than the standard jazz beat usually associated with the number.

Wolff formed Impure Thoughts in the early ’90s, and for quite a while, he used Foster as the lead instrument. Now, happily he said, he’s taken on that role. “I wanted to expand the burden, carry the weight,” he said. “It’s been great. I feel like, in a way, I’d hidden my light under a bushel, and (the change) has made me come alive as a player. I think I play more orchestrally, bring out the melodies more. It’s like being a jazz piano player within that world (music) thing, like Bill Evans or Herbie (Hancock — two of Wolff’s influences) in the jungle, lush notes with stuff going on all around them.” Wolff’s open-mindedness includes his stance on composition. Though he writes with chord progressions, as do most jazz musicians, he doesn’t remain bound to them. “I don’t think chords so much as colors,” he said. “I’m not playing atonal, the music has roots, but it also has freedom with colors.”

Wolff, who played with Rollins from 1976-78 and was music director of “The Arsenio Hall Show” from 1989-93, saluted his partners in Impure Thoughts. “Badal can make all kinds of sounds, he’s really great, and Mike basically invented jazz/funk drumming, but he can play like Elvin (Jones), too,” he said. “John B. is terrific, too. We have a huge repertoire, it’s so much fun.”

NJ STAR-LEDGER, Zan Stewart, April 08, 2005