Live Jazz: The Wolff and Clark Expedition at Vitello’s

By Michael Katz

I’m going to tell you about the second set at Vitello’s Saturday night, featuring the Wolff & Clark Expedition, led by pianist Michael Wolff and drummer Mike Clark. Not that there was anything wrong with the first set. It was, in fact, quite wonderful. It’s just that some of you were no doubt at the first set, and I don’t want to be redundant. The second set, I believe, is my exclusive. A scoop, even.

I know, I know. The second Final Four game didn’t end until nine o’clock or so. That pretty much took care of your evening. And you’ve got lots to do on Sunday morning. LA is just not a late night town, not a great sign for a late night art. So here’s a little of what you missed.

Michael Wolff meandered to the stage while the rest of the band was still milling around, bidding adieu to a few first set stragglers.  He treated the scattered crowd to some lovely solo piano, breathing life into his composition “Portraiture,” until Mike Clark joined him with some textured backing and turned it into a duet. By this time bassist Tony Dumas and guest soloist Bob Sheppard had come back to the stage. Sheppard stepped into a robust tenor introduction to “Song For My Father.” The Horace Silver standard is one of the featured songs on the new Wolff & Clark Expedition CD, which artfully mixes standards like “What Is This Thing Called Love,” and “Hummin’” with original compositions. It’s a trio album, and in the first set it took Sheppard some time to find his way into the arrangements. But “Song For My Father” was a perfect vehicle for him. Perhaps because we’re familiar with the Leon Thomas vocal version, the sound of the tenor feels both familiar and specific to Sheppard’s improvisations. Wolff, meanwhile, countered with his own dark underpinnings, taking the narrative back, while Dumas set the tone behind him.

Michael Wolff and Mike Clark
Michael Wolff and Mike Clark

“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” is a staple in the Wolff oeuvre, dating back to his mid-seventies days with the Cannonball Adderley band. For the CD, he and Clark added an insistent counter tone to the intro, giving the line some extra verve, and freeing up Mike Clark to do some pulsating stick work behind the groove. Like the Lennon-McCartney song “Come Together,” which they performed in the first set, it’s such a recognizable line that it keeps your mind occupied while the players improvise around it, though “Mercy” has that added Zawinul funk that keeps it fresh after all this time.

It’s fun listening to Wolff, Clark et al turn these standards inside out and still bring them home in more or less one piece, but I do want to point out the compositional skills, particularly of Michael Wolff. There are several originals of his on the new CD, including “Elise,” written for his mother, which he performed in the first set.  It’s a brief, lilting melody, extended nicely in live performance with sensitive support from Clark and Dumas.

But I digress. The band has been bringing in guests throughout their tour, and Mike Clark recounted Jimmy Heath’s date with them at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola in New York. They played Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy” there, and recreated it here with Bob Sheppard on soprano sax.  It was a fitting recipe for closing out a late night set. Sheppard soared through hard bop lines on the soprano, completely in control of the instrument’s tonal challenges. Clark, the former Headhunters drummer, agile and inventive as always, had plenty of room to stretch out, driving the pace from the opening downbeat. Tony Dumas, with an insistent bass, kept things alive from underneath. And then there was Michael Wolff with riff after riff, darting through his arpeggios, taking the theme home.

So that was it, not a lengthy set but a memorable one, the kind of thing that happens when a couple of touring stars combine with the type of local talent available in few places outside of LA. It’s what happens when the musicians have an extra hour to find their way with compositions and arrangements new to some and familiar to others.

It is why some of us always stick around.

* * * * * * * *

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

To visit Michael Katz’s personal blog, “Katz of the Day,” click HERE.

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