Acclaimed jazz pianist/composer, Michael Wolff, has performed with everyone from Nancy Wilson to Sonny Rollins. He is also a renowned conductor and the former Musical Director for the Arsenio Hall Show. Wolff has released many albums as a bandleader as well as with his duo Wolff & Clark Expedition, but he has never released his own solo piano album… that is until now.
On May 19, Wolff will drop Zenith, a 14-track collection of songs – both covers and original compositions – that truly express who he is as a musician. In advance of the release, Eponymous Review got a chance to ask him about his motivation in going solo, the inspiration behind the release and what fans can expect from his debut solo piano record.
Laurie Fanelli: Congratulations on Zenith – What can fans expect from the release?
Michael Wolff: I’m extremely proud of the Zenith album. When I went into record I decided to not try to be anything hip or modern or put any outside pressure on myself. I just picked the material and sat at the piano and let it fly.
I think the results are a true expression of my inner musical self. I was happy to observe the music as it happened in the studio. And I hope the listeners will have that same experience of hearing the music come through me.
LF: What made 2017 the perfect time to dive into your solo career?
MW: I have had a couple of years of being very sick with cancer, and am very lucky to have found a great doctor and medical team at Memorial Sloan Kettering in NYC to treat me and help me beat it. I’m now able to be back performing and traveling and am so excited to share my solo piano playing with everyone. I’ve always played solo in my house and done some solo songs within the various ensembles I’ve played with, so I figure now’s the time!
LF: I love that Zenith is a collection of both original compositions and covers. There’s a wide variety of styles represented in the artists you chose to pay tribute to, John Coltrane, Sufjan Stevens, Arthur Hamilton. Is there a common thread throughout the tracklist?
MW: That’s a good question. I always pick individual pieces that I think I can express myself on. John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is a piece I learned in 1974 when I first came to NYC from Berkeley, California. I lived in a loft with a few musicians at Union Square, and we played all night and crashed on mattresses. My friend drummer Chris Braun owned the loft, and we had sessions every night. He and I played a lot of duos, and since I was in NY I made it my business to learn all the jazz tunes I could.
Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is one of the most interesting and demanding pieces in all of jazz music, and I have always been fascinated by the harmony he used to write it. It was difficult for me to play on in the early days, and now it’s so much fun to experiment differently every time I approach it.
Every song on the Zenith album, whether I wrote it or someone else wrote it, has a structure and a mood that inspires me to create something in the moment.
LF: Personally, I’m a big fan of Sufjan Stevens. Why did “Flint” stand-out among his discography?
MW: My sons Nat and Alex Wolff are wonderful singer/songwriters, and they turned me on to Sufjan Stevens. When I heard “Flint” I was moved emotionally, and at first wasn’t sure about the out of tune horns he had on it. As I listened more and more, I realized they give the piece a reality and soulfulness that transcends musical technique. It’s a very simple song, and allowed me to express a very somber yet open feeling when I played it. Producer John Newcott was very helpful with this song in the studio. The first time I played it, I played it pretty much as it was written. Then John suggested I open it up a bit and give it a little more of my jazz personality. That’s when we came up with this take, which I think honors the stark beauty of Sufjan Stevens’ original recording, yet allows me to improvise on it in a way that soars a bit.
LF: I understand that memories of playing for your father served as a bit of the inspiration behind the album. Is he the reason that you first started playing music?
MW: Yes, my father is the one who first turned me on to music and showed me the St Louis Blues on the piano when I was four. He was an amateur musician with perfect pitch who could play piano and any woodwind instrument. He had all kinds of recorders, and clarinets around the house and was always sitting in his rocking chair playing them.
He would play great records for me on our small record player and would guide me through when we listened to them. He showed me Count Basie, Ray Charles, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Frank Sinatra. I loved Ray Charles and George Shearing and when I was little would say “play the blind guys play the blind guys.” I couldn’t believe how they could be blind and play so amazingly. I was so lucky in later life to get to meet all of those magical musicians and tell them how much they had meant to me.
When I was young my father was an internist, a medical doctor. Later on in my teens he became a psychiatrist. He said being a psychiatrist and listening to people talk was like listening to Count Basie’s big band. Everyone listens to the trumpets and saxophones, but if you want to really know what’s going on, you have to listen to what’s underneath – the drums and bass.
LF: What aspect of Zenith are you most excited to share with fans upon its May 19 release?
MW: I guess the thing I’m most excited to share on this album is the way the playing and the feeling on the album is the purest expression of me as a musician and person that I’ve ever recorded. I love the bands I play with, and my band Wolff & Clark Expedition with genius drummer Mike Clark is so fun and exciting to play with, as is my jazz/world band Impure Thoughts. But playing solo is a pure expression of me alone at the piano. I don’t interact with anyone except myself. My feelings, mood, technique, desires, and drive are free to just well up and become one in the music.
All my experiences as a musician and a person are in the music, and all my wonderful times and excruciatingly difficult times are in it too. That’s what art is about to me. It’s the pinnacle of human expression. As my old friend the great pianist Bill Evans said, “It’s all about truth and beauty.”
LF: Do you think that your next project will be solo or with a group?
MW: I’m not sure. I’ve been playing a lot of duo gigs with the great bassist/composer Ben Allison, and would love to record a duo album with him. We have a magical connection when we play, and we concentrate on playing both of our own compositions. We even sometimes write together.
I also want to make another Wolff & Clark Expedition album with drummer Mike Clark. We’re just getting ready to start writing for that album. And I absolutely want to make another solo album. John Newcott and I have been thinking about the next step. We may do a solo album, and we may do an album that is half solo and half duets with a variety of musicians that I love. I’ll keep you posted.
I also have a couple of albums in the can that I want to release. One is a quartet album with the great trumpeter/film composer Mark Isham, and one is a live album I recorded in Paris with my trio there, featuring Jeff Boudreaux on drums. I’m just going to keep putting out music and recording as much as I can. I love it.
Head over to www.MichaelWolff.com for more information on Zenith and all of Wolff’s musical endeavors.