Gimme Five: Michael Wolff on songs with Cannonball Adderley, Warren Zevon, others

On this special edition of Something Else! Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to jazz pianist Michael Wolff. He shares insights into an Indian-inflected collaboration with Charlie Hunter, the lasting allures of funk classics like the Temptations “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” the friendship that grew from collaborating with Warren Zevon and what led him back to Joe Zawinul’s classic “74 Miles Away” …

“PINOCCHIO,” solo (JUMPSTART, 1995): Coming off a run as the funky bandleader of Arsenio Hall’s late-night talk program (1989-94), Wolff reimagined this Wayne Shorter composition as part of a poised post-bop trio record with drummer Tony Williams and bassist Christian McBride. Williams, of course, had played with Shorter and Miles Davis on the original, from 1968′s Nerfetiti. The drummer, who joined Davis’ band at age 17, had a similar experience to Wolff — who earned a gig with vibist Cal Tjader’s band as a teen. Still, they didn’t necessarily hit it off.

Michael Wolff: I was nervous going into the studio with those guys. With Christian McBride on bass, you have three different generations so, musically, it was really great choice. That was fantastic. But Tony was a different guy; he wasn’t super warm. I got along with him great, though. I was so excited. He was such a great drummer. What we got into was Cannonball. Tony loved him too. But we didn’t spend much time together; he was quiet.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Michael Wolff on the lasting importance of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Nancy Wilson’s way with a song — oh, and being Dear Old Dad around the Naked Brothers Band.]

“PAPA WAS A ROLLING STONE,” solo (IMPURE THOUGHTS, 2000): Recording with his new band, also called Impure Thoughts, Wolff offered an interesting reinterpretation of this Temptations classic — as well as Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” Impure Thoughts, which has featured Mike Clark, Alex Foster, Victor Jones, Badal Roy and John B. Williams, incorporates Indian and African rhythms, funk and the blues into Wolff’s core jazz sound. This song, in many ways, set the funky template.

Wolff: That was a drum band. It was about the percussion and the feel. That worked really well. I then colored it harmonically with the piano. One of the limitations of funk is that it’s harmonically simple, but I always like to add that in there. I am actually making on a project right now combining funk and jazz, for trio. I am trying to combine the Bill Evans trio concept with funk. I enjoy all kinds of material.

“AVE MARIA,” with Warren Zevon (CHRISTMAS MOODS, 2003): A standout duo collaboration between Wolff and Warren Zevon. Other collaborations include “The Christmas Song,” also from Christmas Moods and “Similar to Rain” from the late singer-songwriter’s 1995 release Mutineer. The sardonic Zevon passed away in 2003 after at age 56 after battling inoperable mesothelioma, not long after the sessions for “Ave Maria.”

Wolff: Warren and I were really close friends. When I was on Arsenio, he was on one of the early shows. He came on and sat in the rest of the night. I couldn’t wait to meet him. I had been a fan of his, and I knew he liked mystery books. We started talking about books. I knew his hit songs — “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” “Werewolves,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.” He got my address and sent me a bag of books, and we became friends. Pretty soon, we were having breakfast every morning. We were really into late 20th century classical music, Stravinsky and Aaron Copeland. He had studied with Stravinsky. We just hit it off. We were, musically, exactly the same. That’s why we appreciated each other.

“SEXUAL HEALING,” solo (Intoxicate, 2001): The follow up to Wolff’s highly successful debut of the Impure Thoughts band in 2000, Intoxicate was a darkly alluring mixture of exotic sounds — notably, from India. That’s perhaps best heard on Wolff’s update of Marvin Gaye‘s “Sexual Healing,” with Charlie Hunter.

Wolff: My mom and my stepfather always travelled. They had taken a big trip and they brought me back all of these cassettes, years ago, and they were all written in Arabic. I started listening to it and what I heard was what I thought was a mixture of African and Indian music. When I heard those tapes, I thought it would be great to do that. l called the tabla player Badal Roy; I’d heard him on the Miles (Davis) records. We started playing, and it was love at first sight. He and I developed this whole repertoire. We just blended it together. I can’t say that I mastered Indian or African music, but I took those influences and wrote through it. I loved the way Charlie Hunter played on that.

“74 MILES AWAY,” with Cannonball Adderley (PHENIX, 1975): Wolff originally performed this standout Joe Zawinul composition on Adderley’s valedictory recording, then returned to it in 2009 — making “74 Miles Away” the final cut on his solo recording Joe’s Strut. Titled after its unusual meter (Zawinul used 7/4 time in the original), the tune served as the title track for a vigorous 1967 live project from Cannonball Adderley‘s group.

Wolff: That, to me, was a very important track. There’s just something about that track. It’s hypnotic. It’s not about the harmony; it’s about the rhythm. I was not going to put it on there, at one point. I wasn’t sure if it would fit. But I always loved it. It’s hip and the original is so strong. Funny, most of the tunes we know as Cannonball’s stuff, he didn’t write — but he presented them. What I loved about Joe and (cornetist) Nat (Adderley) and Cannonball was the blues in their sound. I will always be into the blues. I just always feel like its underneath, inside of what I am doing.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.