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Michael Wolff is in a Miles Davis groove

The jazz pianist will record his first live album, influenced by a great Davis quintet, at Vitello's in Studio City.

August 30, 2011|By Chris Barton, Los Angeles Times
  • Jazz pianist Michael Wolff led the funk-leaning house band the Dog Pound for 51/2 years on "The Arsenio Hall Show."
Jazz pianist Michael Wolff led the funk-leaning house band the Dog Pound… (John Abbott )

Given certain realities of the marketplace, jazz musicians generally don't have to worry about being easily recognized while walking the streets. For pianist Michael Wolff, however, this is a bit more of an occupational hazard on multiple fronts.

A veteran musician who has enjoyed a variety of high-profile gigs dating to his first break in Cal Tjader's band in the early '70s, Wolff's face might also seem familiar if you caught "The Arsenio Hall Show" in the '90s, when the pianist led the talk show's funk-leaning house band the Dog Pound for 51/2 years. Or, if you were born during the Clinton administration, Wolff's face will ring a bell from Nickelodeon's "The Naked Brothers Band," a mockumentary-styled TV series from the late '00s in which Wolff played the accordion-wielding dad to real-life musician sons Nat and Alex.

Speaking by phone from one of his sons' tour stops in Modesto, Wolff prefers focusing on the very busy here and now. In the wake of earning notice for a run of albums including the most recent "Joe's Strut," a swinging slice of thoughtful straight-ahead jazz named after the late keyboardist Joe Zawinul, Wolff heads for Vitello's in Studio City to record his first live album Tuesday and Wednesday. Teamed with a hard-hitting quartet that includes longtime friend Mark Isham on trumpet and jazz-funk colossus Mike Clark on drums (from Herbie Hancock's Headhunters), Wolff promises a night of free-wheeling originals and songs "identified" with Miles Davis.

"I just think there's a vibe I'm going for, that really great quintet with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter," Wolff said, invoking what became known as "The Second Great Quintet" of Davis' diverse career. "You know, the way they were able to take things and be abstract and deconstruct them, but you still could hear the melody. That's the approach, it's very interactive and everybody plays a lot, but we're playing together to have a certain mood."

Having played with Wolff in a variety of bands since the '70s, Clark cited what he considers one of the keys to the pianist's eclectic artistry. "He's very harmonically sophisticated. He can bend and distort chords and chord changes so that we can get to work deconstructing a tune right away," Clark said. "It's pretty open, it's pretty loose, yet it still swings."

"You know the old cliché where everything has to be modal or real loose and everybody's bashing and doing everything they know, and then the alternative to that would be a real straight, 1950s-style bebop approach?" Clark added, describing the gulf that can arise between the worlds of jazz tradition and its avant-garde. "Well, with Mike you're not saddled to either of those things."

Citing Davis as one of his musical heroes, Wolff had the fortune of receiving what he called "on-the-job training" with a few jazz legends as he was coming up, including stints backing saxophone giants Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Rollins. It was these apprenticeships that helped Wolff solidify his musical identity, which remains steeped in the blues as a reflection of his early years on the New Orleans scene.

"What I got from these greats is they weren't trying to codify anything. They were trying to move forward," he said. "When I was with Cannonball I would ask, 'Hey, Cannon, can we play 'Moment's Notice' or 'Giant Steps'?' — these John Coltrane tunes that I'd been working really hard on. And he goes, 'No, those are great tunes, but those are exercises, man.... I want you to write me some music.'"

Splitting time between New York and L.A. these days, Wolff is excited to record at Vitello's, which offers the usual jazz club offerings of cocktails and entrees from the restaurant downstairs. Though tinkling glasses and dinnerware can sometimes pose a challenge for jazz artists, Wolff isn't someone who demands absolute quiet for his performances.

"I need the audience to make this album great," he said. "I'm not precious about people making noise or eating or drinking when I play, I like it. I always say if you've got your cellphone leave it on — if somebody calls, tell them where you are and tell 'em to come down!"

chris.barton@latimes.com

Michael Wolff: Live CD Recording

Where: Vitello's, 4349 Tujunga Ave., Studio City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday

Price: $15

Info: (818) 769-0905, http://www.vitellosrestaurant.com

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