Live Jazz: The Michael Wolff Quartet Records Live at Vitello’s

By Michael Katz

Of all the reasons to record a live album, “Because we can” might not seem the most compelling until you consider the opportunity that manifested itself Tuesday night at Vitello’s, and then you would ask, “How could you not?” Start out with lifelong friends all gathered in town, add some of the top production people in the business willing to pitch in and top it off with the beautiful Steinway piano and ambiance of the upstairs room at Vitello’s. Not surprisingly, the result was a delicious stew of new tunes and original takes on the Miles Davis/Wayne Shorter oeuvre that has so influenced post-bop jazz.

Michael Wolff

Pianist Michael Wolff, trumpeter Mark Isham and drummer Mike Clark all had their roots in the Bay Area jazz scene of the late sixties. Their friendship has held up while their careers explored practically all of jazz’s tributaries. Wolff’s journey, perhaps the best chronicled, has included early gigs with Cal Tjader and Cannonball Adderly, his stint as music director for Nancy Wilson, his most famous role as the bandleader for Arsenio Hall and many recording dates as a combo leader.

The Nancy Wilson assignment teamed him with bassist John B. Williams, and the two have been friends and collaborators ever since. Isham has carved out a career as a first call film score composer and trumpeter in LA, whose lush tones can be heard memorably on A River Runs Through It, Nell, Crash and countless others. Mike Clark, operating mostly out of the New York jazz scene, has carved a niche in jazz funk, laying down the rhythms for Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters band while performing with everyone from Tony Bennett to Wayne Shorter.

On the production side is another Bay Area native Nic.Ten Broek, a lifelong friend and frequent producer for Wolff. A busy composer and arranger in his own right, Ten Broek pulled the date together, adding veteran sound mixer and engineer Dan Wallin, whose TV and film credits over forty years include Alias, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Up.

Having heard Michael Wolff many times with trio or quartet with saxophones, the presence of Mark Isham is a new and distinctive sound. In many ways, Isham is a perfect player to explore the Davis/Shorter inspired material. His tone, whether on trumpet or flugelhorn, is simply gorgeous – he can introduce a theme with a feel that is reminiscent of Charles Lloyd on the tenor. This was particularly true on Shorter’s “Fall,” and Wolff’s original ballad “Conversation” in the second set. But the real delight is in hearing Isham stretch out, as he did on long melodic runs such as the middle portion of  “Fall,” or on Clark’s original “Loft Funk,” where he really cut loose.

One of  Mike Wolff’s strengths is his ability to deconstruct familiar tunes, then piece them back together in collaboration with his band, especially John B. Williams, who can anticipate his every move. It’s no surprise that his style dovetails perfectly with the Shorter compositions, which invite the counter rhythms and harmonic meanderings that Wolff adds. You hear it in his own compositions such as “Lagniappe,” which opened the first set, establishing a simple theme which was picked up by Isham,  then embellished by Wolff in a subtle call and response. Shorter’s “Pinocchio,” which closed the first set, was a similar example, with Wolf and Isham establishing the familiar line, then taking turns dancing around the melody, Clark and Williams driving the rhythm home.

The most visible effect of the sound engineering was the portable partition surrounding drummer Clark, put up for recording clarity. As an observer it has an odd effect on your musical consumption – you miss the visual cues, not to mention the acrobatics that are part of a live presentation, especially with an energetic performer like Clark. It’s an interesting phenomenon, especially given the opportunity between sets to here the recorded music through headphones, a purely aural experience.

A near capacity crowd filled Vitello’s for the first of the two-night recording session, and you can’t blame the folks on a Tuesday evening who only stayed for one set. But the group really took off after the break, starting with two Wolff originals, “Falling Down” and the aforementioned “Conversation.”  What followed will pose a dilemma for Wolff and Ten Broek, trying to figure how to get this down to one CD. There was Shorter’s “Nefertiti,” introduced with dark, mysterious undertones on the Steinway, augmented by Williams’ sympathetic bass, followed by Isham’s explorations on the trumpet, Clark’s rhythms percolating from behind the screen. Then there was Joe Zawinul’s “In A Silent Way,” again with a haunting Wolff intro,  Isham moving from trumpet to flugelhorn, the theme rumbling underneath while Clark and Williams kept an insistent flow, giving the number an organic feel, a creative pulse reined in just enough to maintain the tension.

There was another Wolff original, “Portraiture,” and then a closing, counter rhythmic treatment of “St. Thomas,” allowing all four players to end the evening in a delightfully funky Caribbean romp. Afterwards, producer Nic. Ten Broek told me they will try and put it all together in a week or two. They will have their work cut out for them; the result should be a prize for listeners.

To read more reviews and posts by Michael Katz click HERE.

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