By Michael Katz
It’s always an occasion to celebrate when pianist Michael Wolff returns to LA. On Friday night at Vitello’s he led an all-star quartet, featuring his longtime running mate John B. Williams on bass, Bob Sheppard on tenor and soprano sax and, in a rare treat for this SoCal audience, Mike Clark on drums. The quartet grabbed everyone’s attention from the start with a probing, spirited take on Wayne Shorter’s “Pinocchio.” Wolff set the chordal tone with Sheppard announcing the theme on tenor, then Michael danced around it with bright glissandos, backed by the redoubtable Williams and the dynamic rhythms of Clark.
Wolff’s arrangements offered some fresh takes on familiar tunes. A veteran of Cannonball Adderley’s last bands, he led the quartet through an updeat interpretation of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” Sheppard hit the familiar line with short, staccato bursts on soprano sax, Clark matching him with smart assertiveness. Best known from Herbie Hancock’s “Headhunters” band, Clark was a force all night long. Sharp and in command, he drove the quartet through the upbeat numbers like Charlie Parker’s “My Little Suede Shoes“ and provided a gentler but firm backing for the ballads, including Wolff’s composition “Pandora’s Box.” The latter featured Sheppard on soprano, engaging in a haunting interplay with Wolff.
Wolff has a sometimes dark, lyrical approach to standards, and Sheppard is a perfect match for him. “Cry Me A River“ was a real stunner, with Wolff opening up in a dreamy, midnight setup to the tune, then Sheppard following with a thick-as-molasses evocation of the melody. Wolff took back the theme with John B Williams in support, the bittersweet meaning of the song evident in his interpretation.
Similarly, in the second set, a highlight was Wolff’s rendition of Frank Loesser’s “If I Were A Bell.” Wolff performed this in a trio setting in his Joe’s Strut album and he announced it with the familiar minor chord at Vitello’s, but the addition of Sheppard gave it another dimension. It was an occasion for the quartet to stretch out, Williams matching a bass solo with some terrific brush work by Clark, who then picked up the sticks to drive the piece back to its familiar melody.
The band proved its versatility with a funky arrangement of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” the penultimate number in the first set, Wolff demonstrating his generational roots and Clark getting to show off a little of the Headhunters legacy. Later, in the second set, they did a funky version of Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father“, Wolff’s bright solos again accentuated by Clark’s driving stick work.
Both sets had swinging conclusions. Wolff’s composition “Lagniappe“ had a Monkish quality to it, Sheppard playing with characteristic verve and Clark providing a memorable solo that crested toward the end, bringing Wolff back on top of it for a concluding solo. The second set wrapped up with a burning version of “St. Thomas,” one of the few times I’ve heard it played where it did not sound derivative of Sonny Rollins. Michael Wolff has that effect – he shines as composer, arranger and performer, infusing every number with innovation and originality.
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