Michael Wolff is a genuine hipster -- a Manhattan-based family man and internationally acclaimed pianist-composer-bandleader whose late night, blue light singing on Love and Destruction, his tenth album, brings new cool to an inspired selection of rock/pop classics as well as his own tunes about the well-lived life, now.
A baby boomer in his prime, Wolff is renown for his old school jazz roots, melodically fresh and rhythmically compelling multi-keyboard style, and ever-expanding media presence. A New Orleans native who’s father taught him blues on piano before he began classical lessons at age eight, Michael also grew up in Memphis and Berkeley, California, getting his first significant professional gig when he was 19 from Latin jazz vibist Cal Tjader. He made his recording debut with Cannonball Adderley’s band in 1975, and has worked extensively with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Christian McBride and others including his late friend Warren Zevon and singer Nancy Wilson, for whom he wrote orchestral arrangements and conducted more than 25 major symphony orchestras during world-wide tours. Wolff’s own band Impure Thoughts, launched in 2000, is an infectious improvising ensemble, richly percussive thanks to Indian tabla player Badal Roy, drummer Mike (Headhunters) Clark and electric bassist John B. Williams, all of whom appear on Love and Destruction, Wolff’s first release on Wrong Records. Wolff’s recent performances include an Impure Thoughts concert at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms, a trip to the British Virgin Isles and several dates in the Midwest, leading to a December 2006 booking at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard.
His growing corpus of movie soundtracks includes The Tic Code (2000), a feature for actor-dancer Gregory Hines that was semi-autobiographical in its depiction of the Tourette’s Syndrome with which Wolff copes. His five-and-a-half year stint as musical director of the “Arsenio Hall Show” heightened his visibility and gave him the occasion to meet his wife, actress and writer/director Polly Draper. He is producer, and Draper writer-director of the upcoming Nickelodeon cable tv series “The Naked Brothers Band,” starring their sons Nat, 12, and Alex, nine (Wolff will appear regularly as the boys’ “hapless, accordion-playing dad”), and he produced his first music video for Love and Destruction’s plaintive “Underwater,” shooting on location in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
“It’s not a sudden departure,” Wolff says of his video efforts, as well as his affectively husky and hushed singing on Love and Destruction. “I’m making developmental steps. I’ve had some interesting years doing a lot of different things, and now this is where I’ve arrived.
“I’m not living in the past, musically – I still have some of that ‘60s mentality, wanting to change the world and the music. But I think I’ve bridged the divide between needing to be different or revolutionary and also wanting to express beauty, serenity. Singing feels like an opening up to me. Playing instrumental music is abstract, which I love, but I love using the sounds of words, and their meanings, too.”
Wolff’s repertoire and his manner of interpreting it reveals a lot about his underlying aesthetic and broadly encompassing strategy. Love and Destruction begins with “Tell Me,” a gospel-tinged “asking song” in which the two dozen kids of the African Children’s Choir sing a chorus of “Give me hope . . . heal my soul,” echoing his pose as a lost man looking for answers. Wolff multi-tracked layers of Fender Rhodes electric piano, Hammond B-3 organ and Steinway grand to thicken the arrangement with sophistication that embraces rather than filters out soulfulness. His followup original, “Falling in Love,” is completely different, capturing the dizzy thrill of a crush-at-first-sight. Then he deconstructs Radiohead’s moody “Everything In Its Right Place,” making subtle reference to Miles Davis’s jazz-fusion breakthrough “In A Silent Way.”
After his dramatic “Underwater,” with it’s urgent opening plea “Give me my home back!”, Wolff delves into an amazing sequence of covers, portraying an enthralled lover on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” updating Lee Dorsey’s Crescent City funk on “Ya Ya,” smoking the Supremes-Lamont Dozier classic “Stop! In the Name of Love,” darkening the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” and swinging Donovan Leitch’s psychedelic ditty “Mellow Yellow.” He tenders a post-macho advance on his original “Tango,” and delivers his friend Zevon’s “Hostage O” as a paean to love, though it be a prison. Finally, he treats Beck’s “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime” as simply and sincerely as only a man of experience can.
Over the course of Love and Destruction, Wolff suggests his kinship to Cohen, Donovan, Jagger, Zevon, Mose Allison, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Fagen and Becker of Steely Dan and a host of bluesmen – those observers of several sides of life, who admit to few illusions but hold onto a measure of hope if not faith. “I don’t have a single disposition, I’m a real mix. The only thing I’d like to be known as is someone who keeps being creative.
“I try to go by the heart. I know the intellectual stuff, but how the music feels is what matters first of all. I want it to always be real. I don’t compromise anything on purpose. I’m happy to do my records independently, make my own mistakes or successes. With Love and Destruction I’ve wrapped up a lot of my talents in one package, intending them to be powerful together, at once. I’m really expressing myself, though I’ve given up on trying to express myself. I’ve given up on trying to be hip. I’m just being myself.” Which is the hippest state of all.
Written by Howard Mandel