Interview with Michael Wolff: I’m not really sure about the state of jazz: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz pianist and composer Michael Wolff. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Michael Wolff: – I grew up in the south of the United States. New Orleans, Louisiana and Memphis, Tennessee. When I was nine years old we moved to Berkeley, California in the San Francisco Bay Area. My father was an amateur musician who loved jazz. We always listened to Count Basie, Ray Charles, Oscar Peterson, and George Shearing. When I was young we got an old upright piano and I started playing on my own, picking out songs on the piano. My father taught me the St Louis Blues, and I went from there.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound? What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

MW: – As far as my sound evolving. I always listened to any musician I could. I loved all the piano players when I was growing up. My favorites were Bill Evans, Herbie hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett. But I also listened to Thelonious Monk, Barry Harris, Red Garland, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington and many more. I had two great jazz piano teachers when I was in High School in Berkeley. Dick Whittington and Bill Bell. Their teachings and playing had a profound effect on me. My favorite bands were Miles Davis’ bands, and Cannonball Adderley’s bands. I had a band in High School called the Berkeley Jazz Quintet. We had trumpet and trombone and sax and piano, bass and drums. We played Horace Silver arrangements and wrote our own music. I was always trying to figure out what my favorites were doing. I played with Cal TJader for two years and then Airto and Flora Purim, and then Cannonball Adderley. I worked on playing their music as well as I could. Rhythm was always the number one thing for me. First rhythm then melody, Harmony came last for me. I played drums from twelve years old on so I approached the piano as the percussion instrument it is. I still do. Playing is really drumming on tones. I have developed my harmonic concept by figuring out scales and chords and chords that go with other chords. Playing two chords at once. I use five or six harmonic concepts simultaneously. There is no one secret to jazz. There are a few!

As far as practice routines or exercises, they vary for me. I’m always working on my technique, trying to find the best sound on the piano for what I’m trying to impart. I like to work on chromatic thirds, fourths and other intervals. One thing else I do is take a sound I like and play it all over the keyboard not thinking about its harmonic function.

JBN: – Can you tell us more about your influences and how your musical identity has developed over the years?

MW: – My musical identity has always been as a jazz player, but in order to earn a living I played lots of different kinds of music. In the San Francisco Bay Area in the time I was coming up, in the 70’s, we were always proud to be able to play any style authentically. Whether it was straight ahead jazz, fusion jazz, Latin music, Brazilian music, Rock, Funk, Country-whatever it is I wanted to sound as good as I could in that particular genre.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

MW: – As far as disparate influences, I LIKE it when they color what I’m doing. I live in the world and am influenced by many different types of music, from classical to pop to Indi rock to Indian music, all world musics. I have played and listened to many many different kinds of music and like to bring into my playing what moves my soul.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

MW: – I don’t do too much to prepare for performances. I will do a little practicing during the day, primarily some technical things, and perhaps do a light workout on the bike or elliptical and do some stretching etc. As far as keeping my spiritual stamina, I think the interaction I have with the musicians I play with gets me into the best headspace to create with them. Just hanging out and talking and laughing and communicating is great. If I’m tired or stressed I’ll do a little meditation, either a meditation from Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery, or transcendental meditation.

JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?

MW: – At Cannonball Adderley’s funeral, Reverend Jesse Jackson said, “Cannonball combined science and soul.” That’s my idea of great music. Using the intellect to learn things and come up with ideas and concepts. But all these ideas and concepts MUST serve the emotions and the soul.

In terms of the audience and me, I am playing the music that I need to play at the moment. I hope the audience will go along with me. I do react to them and feel we are on a journey together. I don’t perform a Broadway show about jazz, I am jazz and in the moment at all times with the music and my band and the audience. We are a team and are all involved in the creation of the experience.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

MW: – Right now I have the best band for me I have ever had. Ben Allison on bass and Allan Mednard on drums are superb musicians and collaborators. Their ears are out of this world. They go with me wherever I go, and that can be anywhere once the music starts! On every set that we have played we have created new, different approaches to our material. I couldn’t ask for a better situation for me to compose and perform with. Our latest performances at Birdland Theater in NYC were amazing. I felt the energy and creativity from the first note on the first set Friday night to the last note of the last set on Saturday night. Every set and song and sound were different and inspiring.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

MW: – As far as getting young people interested in jazz, that’s a tough one. When we had band instruments in elementary and middle and high school, that brought kids into playing real instruments and getting an idea of what music can be made by them. When I was in the fourth grade in Berkeley, we were all called into the cafeteria one afternoon, and a guy came in and laid out a million instruments on all the cafeteria tables. Trumpets, trombones, saxophones, clarinets, basses, cellos, violins, every instrument. And any student could pick any instrument and could use it for free to take lessons and play in various bands. That’s probably the best way to get young people into instrumental music. Once they’re into that, they might get into jazz.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

MW: – I’m not really sure about the state of jazz. I’m an adjunct professor in the New York University jazz program in New York City. I encounter many young musicians who are dedicated to jazz. They are in New York so they can go out and hear all the best players any night. And all of us teachers are professional jazz musicians with international careers, so they get the best education. I think the problem is once someone becomes a jazz musician, what do they do for a living? When I started out, expenses were so low we could all afford to just be players. Rent was cheap, food was cheap, transportation was cheap. So one could have a moderate success as a jazz musician and still lead a decent life.

Now everything in the United States is so expensive every musician I know has to cobble together a career by playing, composing , and teaching, if not doing other things too. There are less and less opportunities to work playing jazz.

You have to really NEED to be a jazz musician to do it. Then you will figure out a way to survive.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

MW: – If I could change one thing in the music world, it would be that people loved to buy CD’s and loved to go out to live concerts more than watch and listen to everything for free on You Tube.

JBN: – What are you listening to, reading and/or watching these days?

MW: – I am an inveterate reader. Right now I’m reading a memoir by Dave Eggars called A heartbreaking work of staggering genius, as well as a novel by Emily Nemens called The Cactus League. I also read the New Yorker Magazine and the New York Times. I’m listening to many different things. Ravel’s piano concerto in G, Copeland’s Appalachian Spring, Miles Davis Live in Europe, Bill Evans Live at the Village Vanguard, and many other records. As far as hearing live music, I recently heard my good friend pianist Fred Hersch and his trio at the Village Vanguard. I also hear the Mingus big band often, as well as play with it occasionally, and go out to hear many musicians in NYC when I can.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

MW: – As I said before, my message is joy and positivity and creativity.

JBN: – As a nod to Pannonica, if you had three wishes, what would they be? Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

MW: – My three wishes are, Trump loses for president of the US in the next election. All cancer and diseases are cured, and we can reverse climate change in the next ten years.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

MW: – I don’t have a question for myself. I think from what I’ve written you have a good idea of where I’ve come from and where I’m at now. I guess I would just say that the feeling in the music is what moves me and I hope moves others. What’s underneath the music is the truth and beauty and spirit.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan 

Michael Wolff Trio With Steve Wilson On JazzSet : NPR

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