Vermont Review: Impure Thoughts with Michael Wolff
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Impure Thoughts with Michael Wolff
By Brian L. Knight

Michael Wolff and Impure Thoughts have recently been sighted on the music scene here and there. They played on the Gamelan stage during the Cambridge World Festival and they were a feature act at 2000 Berkshire Festival. For both of these events and their weekly gigs in New York City, the band has been laying down some wonderful grooves that combine world music, fusion, funk and hard bop. Although a new to many a young person’s musical lexicon, Impure Thoughts is an all star lineup. Band leader, pianist Michael Wolff, began he career playing with Cal Tjader, Cannonball Adderly and Sonny Rollins while tabla Badal Roy is a veteran of the bands of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Pharaoh Sanders. Saxophonist Alex Foster can be heard on the albums of Chic while the rhythm section of bassist John Williams, drummer Victor Jones and percussionist Frank Colon have a resume consisting of Milton Nascimento, Gato Barbieri, Airto Moreira, Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillepsie.

Besides his musical endeavors, band leader Michael Wolff has managed a career that has crossed over into the visual arts. Besides being married to actress Polly Draper (of 30 Something fame), Wolff was the bandleader for the Arsenio Hall show during the early 1990s. His latest effort is his work for the movie "The Tic Code", which was written by Draper and chronicles the life of a jazz musician with Tourettes Syndrome. Since Wolff is diagnosed with the disease himself, the movie most likely has biographical undertones. The movie stars Gregory Hines and has Wolff’s music for the entire soundtrack.

The Vermont Review got a chance to talk to Wolff while he was on babysitting duty in his New York City home.

Vermont Review: Where I am calling?

Michael Wolff: New York. Manhattan. I have had a place here for years and years and years but I have been back here permanently for about two years. For the last ten years or so, I have been back forth between New York and LA. I still have a place in LA, but I had to choose because of my kids – schools and stuff. And it seemed like New York is better artistically for me and my wife, who is an actress. So we are here now and it has worked out great.

VR: I had a chance to hear your latest band, Impure Thoughts at the Cambridge World Festival. How long have you had the lineup together?

MW: It has been together over a year. I started a year ago March. I had this idea to this because I heard some music from Eritrea and Ethiopia. I have Badal Roy on tablas, Frank Colon on percussion, Alex Foster on sax and I used lots of different bass players and drummers. I tried stuff out while I had a weekly Friday night gig. It worked out really well. We tried different stuff and experimented writing. Through that summer, maybe a six-month period, we worked on it. It came together and we did some recording. We made the CD over three different sessions. So now we have a set band. It really has been a great natural evolutionary process.

VR: You mentioned Eritrea and Ethiopia. When I listen to your CD, I hear lots of inherent world music tinges. Have you spent a lot of time traveling?

MW: I have. I have traveled all over the world. I started really young. When I was 20, I was with Cal Tjader, the jazz vibist. I started getting into that music and playing with lots of Latin guys. I went to South America, Puerto Rico, all over the United States, and Canada. Not huge travel but I go to play with so many people – Armando Peraza, Willie Bobo, Tito Puente, and Mongo Santamaria. So that got me into different beats at very early age. Then I started traveling when I got with Cannonball Adderly and Sonny Rollins. I went to Japan, Europe and South America. Wherever I was, especially in the Caribbean, Jamaica, Martinique, Bahamas, I would go out and check out whoever was playing. To me the music relates to the place, the weather, the humidity, and the smell. With our tabla player, Badal Roy – he is from Bengal, India. When he opens up his bag, it smells like that sort of incense, Indian vibe.

VR: Like yourself, Badal Roy comes from an impressive musical background.

MW: He is amazing. He has done a million things.

VR: Out of all the musicians that Badal Ray has played with - Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders – where do you fit in?

MW: I would say that my hero in music…… the person that I think was the greatest was Miles Davis. The way he kept changing. That he was able to make gumbo. He cooked. As for actual sound, Weather Report was great. Even Joe Zawinul’s band now – the Zawinul Syndicate. It is so happening. I spent a lot of time in Paris. I am over there at least once or twice a year. There are so many great African musicians over there. Even with Fats Domino, who listened to Caribbean beats……..Professor Longhair. I grew up listening to these guys in the South.  I think there is a tradition of mixing things. What I am doing with my band right now is very much acoustic. Though If I am doing a gig and I can’t get a piano, sometimes I will use something else. I really like acoustic piano and I think that is one thing that - the fusion stuff is more electric - we keep a certain roots feeling because of the acousticness of that.

VR: You have covered some interesting tunes on your album.

MW: There is Miles Davis "In A Silent Way", "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" and "Thank You" (Sly Stone). It is stuff that I love. I go with the feeling that I love. To me, those tunes are great. They are ostinatos. The way that harmony goes around is like the other stuff I am writing so it worked out well.

VR: You said that you grew up listening to Professor Longhair?

MW: I grew up in Memphis and New Orleans until I was about ten. Than we moved to Berkeley, California. I spent every summer in New Orleans visiting my aunts and my cousins. I started playing there really young, about twelve or thirteen. Sitting in and meeting lots of new musicians. I heard these young players, and I go "Man, that is a great style." They were into James Booker and Professor Longhair, so I started hearing those guys, sneaking into Tipitina's and different clubs like that.

VR: Do you still go down there?

MW: All the time. I still have all my family down there. I have been down there twice in the past year. Actually, I just played down there for the Intl. Assoc. of Jazz Educators convention in January. I was just down for a family reunion, in New Iberia, which is a couple of hours north from New Orleans. I am always down there.

VR: Are you fan of the jazz fest?

WW: I am. I prefer to play it, but I do go to it. I like the gospel tent. You know, you always hear interesting stuff.

VR: What is your favorite New Orleans food?

MW: I am a red beans and rice guy and file gumbo kind of guy. I like it with okra. And I like raw oysters.

VR: Do you frequent the Maple Leaf Bar?

MW: I have been there. I have not been there too often. I have been there, you know, at three in the morning. I like it than. It is a fun hang .You drop by there late and have a good time.

VR: I am going to name some names. I would like to hear what you thought of them. Tony Williams?

MW: I played with him on a couple of my records. He was my favorite drummer growing up. I think he is the most creative, energetic and magical drummer that I have ever heard. When I first started getting into Miles, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in terms of Miles in the Sky and Nefertiti………..I think Nefertiti was the album just blew my mind. I had Carnegie Hall stuff from 1964 and 1965, but when Nefertiti came out in 1968, I was just blown away. The tune Nefertiti, where Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter play the melody and Herbie Hancock, Ron (Carter) and Tony kind of soloed under the melody…..I thought that was real different. I think Tony was an amazing drummer and amazing musician.

VR: Cecil Taylor?

MW: Total excitement and freedom. I always love to hear him. He has inspired me a lot. I prefer him live than on record. I prefer most music live than on record. I have gotten to this point where I really like to hear stuff live. Definitely Cecil – I love to hear his stuff live. I haven’t heard him that much but I had some impressionable times during my teenage years, I heard him in Berkley, California.

VR: Dave Holland?

MW: Dave Holland……he is a bass player that I would like to play with. I have never played with him. I have called him for a few gigs but he has never been available. I love the way he played in Files de Kilmanjaro with Miles. That album was a great thing. It was pretty acoustic…they had a little electric piano but it was mostly acoustic with mostly acoustic bass. Yet it was all straight A rock beats. I thought that was pretty hip. The way that he did that…….. the way he played on In A Silent Way…… he is amazing.

VR: Deodato?

MW: Wow! You are bringing it back. What was that famous 2001: Space Odyssey? That was kind of hip. It was hip in his day. I don’t have tons of his stuff but it was nice.

VR: Christian McBride?

MW: Great bassist. Really good musician. He can play anything. He somehow go into that straight ahead, suit and tie, neo-conservative stuff or whatever. He can play what ever he wanted. When he played on the records, he definitely played creatively the way that I liked. I heard his band……it was great. I thought his band was one of the few bands that really had a band feel, kind of a funky almost a Cannonball Adderley-esque thing to it, unique among young bands.

VR: McCoy Tyner?

MW: A big influence on every piano player harmonically. I love all the stuff he did with Coltrane; I love a lot of his trio records that I have. But the only solos that I tried to write out was Passion Dance. I think he was great. I like his big band stuff too.

VR: Les McCann?

MW: I love Les McCann.. I got to know him, become friends with him, and played with him when I was on the Arsenio Hall show. I think he’s so soulful, so bluesy, so great (starts singing "try to make it real….)

VR: Tic Code . Is that pretty much an accurate overview of your life?

MW: Well no, its an overview of some of my issues; it’s not my life. I didn’t grow up in New York City, but its dealing with my problems. Both Gregory Hines character and my character are elements of how my life looks and views how I deal with Tourette's. I was never very open about it. It deals with a lot of issues that people have to go through when they feel they have something that is weird about them… It’s really a metaphor for everybody that feels alienated from mainstream society. Its about a man a woman and a boy and how they create a family, how they create their own little structure within an alienated society.

VR: Does Tourette’s affect your playing at all?

MW: You know people ask me that, but I’ve only been a musician with Tourette’s so I don’t know the difference. There is an opera composer with Tourette's named Tobias Picker, and he and I have become friends. He’s heard me play and he definitely thinks it’s very Tourettic, so I guess it does, but I don’t know, I don’t think about it. I don’t do ticks when I’m playing.

VR: Thelonious Monk shows up on that soundtrack quiet a bit.

MW: Yeah I think he had Tourette’s too, though it has never been documented…I think he was a unique guy. My line now is that I don’t think Thelonious Monk could win the Monk competition, he’s too original. I think he’s amazing. He’s the original voice of the composer-player. I remember I was in New York in the seventies and eighties, he was just walking around, and nothing was happening, he wasn’t working much.

There’s Monk! There’s Monk!

VR: Is Tic Code the closest you and your wife have been on a professional level?

MW: Yes it is. She had done a video of one of my songs before. It was an intense thing to work together like that. We had different roles in the movie. She was the screenwriter and star and we produced it together, but I was the composer and the Tourettes expert. It wasn’t that we were doing the same thing all the time which was good. We didn’t have any artistic problems. We just had problems getting the movie made. Its hard to get people to go along with your vision and so many people in film don’t always have the film’s best interest at heart. They have their own point of view, and when you are an artist its like being the leader of a band, you want to get the most out of everybody but you have to sculpt the work of art so that it has your vision. Its not a democracy. It was different for us to do that, but ultimately we succeeded.

VR: Between Tic Code and Jellyroll's Last Stand it seems that Gregory Hines has quite an inherent love of jazz.

MW: The guy is amazing. We saw him in Waiting to Exhale and that’s when I said to my wife, that’s the guy. Of course everybody knows he’s a great dancer, but as an actor in his whole vibe, you know he played the saxophonist. Bruce Lundvall at Blue Note when I showed him the movie he said "Wow! I didn’t know Gregory played the sax" . I said he doesn’t man Alex Foster plays sax, but Gregory is such an amazing mimic of it. He did a fantastic job.

VR: When you are playing live, do you go through any pre-performance rituals?

MW: No. Its too late now. If I can’t do it now…..my last 30 years is a ritual. Its not like a football team. It’s just to hang out with the cats and make sure we are groovin’. I have made sure that I love everybody in the band and everybody gets along. Everybody is a great musician, so we just have fun. It is really fun to play in this band – everybody is playing the way they want to play. People do not often get a chance to do that in music. Mostly people have to make a living.

VR: It that an experience that you learned from your time on the Arsenio Hall Show?

MW: Exactly. It was a job. I was mature enough to realize that it was a job but it wasn’t my art. Generally, when you are scoring a film, it is a job. This movie was my heart and soul, but the music had to serve the film. Whereas I have the band, the music serves whatever I want to do. It is not functional – It can just be expressed. Anywhere else, it is sort of functional. It is like building a house. Architects make a work of art, but if the doors don't open right, it is irrelevant how good it looks. I think music that is scoring a movie or a TV show, it has to fulfill a function. Not that you can’t do great art with that but I have total freedom with the band.

VR: Which must feel great.

MW: It does feel great. I love how it is. I have these great musicians, I go "1,2,3 go" and we just play.

VR: You were mentioning the different instruments that you play. Does every piano have its own personality?

MW: Yeah. Some have no personality. I think they are like cars – you can get a lemon or you can get a good one. Piano brands have their own personality and individual pianos do. I have to respond to the piano, because I can’t play the exact same way on every piano. If it is basically a good piano and it has a nice touch and it is in tune, I can express myself. I played so many years on so many different pianos, you have to make do.

VR: One of the your summer performances is at the Berkshire Musical Festival which is categorically, a jam band festival. You have a sound that will appeal to the jam band fan base.

MW: It has been great. We did a week in Colorado where we opened for some jam bands. I was really happy with the reaction that we got. It was fantastic. They were like "Dude, totally inspiring". It was great. A lot of times with a jazz fan,. They have already picked who they like. And a lot of those people are dead. I like to play with whoever moves to the music, whoever who digs the music. Jazz is my first thing but I have always played a lot of other kinds of music. Actually, when I played with Cal Tjader, we had the most diverse crowd by age, color and education. Eighteen year old college students, 60 year old people, black people, white people, Latin people. That is what I really love. I like it to be diverse. That I what "Impure Thoughts" is. It is not pure. It is not "Oh, this is the way you have to play. You have to play theses beats and with these color people." I don’t see it that way. I see it as all part of a mix of the world. We can be exposed to anything now in the world. We are so lucky, we can hear any kind of music. Why not be part of it? That is how I see it. That is the fun for me.

For more info, go to www.michaelwolff.com.