Renowned pianist Michael Wolff, an award-winning, internationally acclaimed pianist, composer, bandleader, and author has graced the world’s most prestigious stages, collaborated with jazz legends, conducted symphony orchestras worldwide, and left an indelible mark on both the jazz and film industry. On the eve of his highly anticipated show at Zinc Bar on November 14th, where he will be joined by bassist Ben Allison and drummer Allison Miller, we delve into the extraordinary career of a jazz legend. With a life story detailed in his memoir, On That Note, launched in 2022, Michael Wolff’s musical journey is nothing short of remarkable.
Michael Wolff’s musical odyssey has spanned decades, marked by a series of notable milestones. He began his recording debut with jazz legend Cal Tjader in the mid-70s, a pivotal moment that set the stage for his illustrious career. Since then, he has graced the stage and recorded with some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world. The list reads like a who’s who of jazz excellence, including Grammy-nominated Flora Purim and her husband Airto Moreira, jazz alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderly, and the iconic Sonny Rollins, among many others. His collaborations have not only shaped his unique musical style but have also left an indelible mark on the world of jazz.
Beyond performing, Michael’s talent and versatility have led him to conduct over 25 symphony orchestras worldwide. His performances in esteemed venues such as The Dallas Symphony, The Fort Worth Symphony, The Berlin Radio Orchestra, and The Atlanta Symphony have highlighted his ability to seamlessly bridge the worlds of jazz and classical music. Michael has also had the honor of performing at renowned venues such as Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Birdland, and many others across the United States and worldwide.
With a discography that boasts 21 recordings to critical and popular acclaim, including the Gold Disk Award-winning album ‘Jumpstart’ with Christian McBride and Tony Williams, Michael Wolff continues to push the boundaries of jazz. His trio, featuring Ben Allison on bass and Alan Mednard on drums, is celebrated for its innovation and sonic mastery. He’s a Yamaha/Bosendorfer artist, adding a special dimension to his performances and recordings, including their live recording album ‘Swirl,’ released in January 2019 on Sunnyside Records.
Not limited to the jazz stage, Michael Wolff has also left his mark in the world of film and television. His compositions have graced various projects, including ‘The Tic Code,’ ‘The Naked Brothers Band,’ and most recently, ‘Stella’s Last Weekend.’ This unique duality of crafting scores for the screen and creating soulful jazz compositions has allowed him to explore different artistic dimensions.
Michael’s career is a testament to his boundless passion for music, his commitment to pushing boundaries, and his relentless pursuit of excellence. With his memoir, ‘On That Note,’ he invites us to delve deeper into his extraordinary journey. We’re truly excited to have him here today, and we can’t wait to experience his magic at Zinc Bar on November 14th.
Charles Carlini: Michael, your musical journey has taken you to some incredible places, from being the musical director for Nancy Wilson and The Arsenio Hall Show to playing with jazz luminaries like Cannonball Adderly and Sonny Rollins. Can you share a pivotal moment or performance that stands out to you as a defining chapter in your career?
Michael Wolff: There have been so many exhilarating moments I’ve experienced while playing music. One I will never forget occurred when I was twenty-two, in the studio recording with the Cannonball Adderley band. Cannonball decided that he and I should perform a duo rendition of the classic “Stars Fell On Alabama.”
He turned to me and asked, “What should we do with this, Mike?”
I was taken aback, as I had never played the song before. “Let’s try the bridge in 3/4,” I replied.
We entered the studio, and the percussionist Airto Moreira was still set up from the previous song, seated by his percussion instruments. As we started to play, something magical unfolded. I initiated with an intro, and Cannonball launched into the melody. Airto joined in with some subtle percussion, and suddenly, we were in sync. When we reached the bridge, we played it in three, and I improvised and soloed for a while. Cannonball delivered a breathtaking solo, and we closed by revisiting the melody.
It all unfolded spontaneously, with no prior preparation, and it remains one of the recordings of which I am most proud.
CC: Your extensive discography includes 21 recordings, and your album ‘Jumpstart’ with Christian McBride and Tony Williams even won the Gold Disk Award in Japan. Can you tell us about the creative process behind your music and what inspires your compositions?
MW: I’ve been composing since I was a young boy. I’d sit at the piano and simply create. Back then, I didn’t even know it was called composing. The music emerged from my emotions and reactions to the sounds flowing from the piano.
During junior high school, I had a classical piano teacher named Mrs. Bardell. After a few lessons, she quickly grasped where I was in my musical journey. She told me, “Every lesson, we’ll work on one Beatles song, one of your compositions, and then we’ll tackle the classical pieces I assign for you to learn.”
From that point onward, I never ceased composing. In high school, I formed a sextet with some friends and began writing for trumpet, saxophone, and trombone, as well as bass, drums, and piano.
I was also part of the high school big band, and I contributed compositions for it. When I was a senior in high school, Duke Ellington came to listen to our big band rehearse. During that time, he heard one of my compositions. His words of encouragement left a lasting impact on me.
Writing music has always been a constant in my life. I’ve been at it for sixty years now. Often, inspiration strikes when I experience a particular emotion, and I subsequently discover the notes and chords that best convey that feeling.
CC: You’re currently a Yamaha/Bosendorfer artist and have recorded with your trio at the Yamaha Piano Salon in New York City. How does the piano and your choice of instruments influence your music, and what can we expect from your trio’s live recording album ‘Swirl’?
MW: Every piano I encounter on the road is distinct, requiring me to adapt to each one. It’s akin to the sentiment expressed in the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with!”
The vibrations and overtones of each piano subtly affect how I voice my chords. They may offer a rich, grand sound, or on certain pianos, I might opt for a more subdued chord voicing. If a particular piano boasts an exceptional register, particularly strong low notes, I’ll emphasize them more than usual.
I wholeheartedly endorse Yamaha/Bösendorfer pianos. Like with any piano company, the uniqueness of each individual piano is a given. In my experience, Yamaha pianos stand out as the most consistently reliable instruments, and I’ve always had a deep appreciation for Bösendorfers. During my tenure as the musical director of the Arsenio Hall talk show, I was a proud endorser of Bösendorfers. Now, I’m fortunate to have the best of both worlds.
I’ve had the privilege of recording at the Yamaha piano salon, where I’ve had the opportunity to play some remarkable and unique Yamaha grand pianos. A few years ago, I recorded a live album there in collaboration with the jazz radio station WBGO. My friend John Newcott at WBGO produced the performance and the resulting record, “Swirl.” We had a live audience for most of the recording, which infused our music with a sense of abandon that might have been more constrained in a studio setting. “Swirl” is the only album I’ve created that has risen to the number one spot on jazz radio charts, a source of immense pride for me.
CC: In addition to your music, you’ve composed scores for various films and television projects, such as ‘The Tic Code,’ ‘The Naked Brothers Band,’ and most recently, ‘Stella’s Last Weekend.’ How does your approach to scoring differ from your approach to jazz, and what are the unique challenges and joys you find in both?
MW: I have a deep love for composing music for film and television, which is a completely different process compared to composing music for myself.
It all begins with a meeting with the director, and together, we meticulously watch the entire film. We make precise decisions about where the music should start and end in scenes that require it. The director is in charge and I try to musically help the director fulfill his or her artistic vision. Sometimes, the director has even included a temporary score, providing a glimpse into their vision.
The discipline of this process is something I relish. Crafting music that resonates with the drama unfolding on the screen is a particular joy. I often employ leitmotif as a method, assigning specific themes to certain characters. This subtle technique infuses them with unique feelings and perspectives.
In action scenes, I aim to create music that enhances the excitement. This may involve crafting rhythmic compositions that propel the action forward, or at times, taking an entirely different approach.
My approach to scoring for the screen is akin to that of a craftsman, much like a shoemaker tailoring a shoe for a client. The shoemaker measures the foot, and the client specifies the materials, color, and style of the shoe or boot they desire. Then, it’s a matter of creating exactly what the client envisions. While the composer may inject some creative flair, it’s primarily about functionality.
This parallels the process of scoring a movie. The music must serve the film, the director’s vision, and the studio’s requirements. The composer’s role is to harmoniously serve these masters.
CC: Your new memoir, On That Note, offers a glimpse into your incredible journey as a jazz artist. What motivated you to write this book, and could you share a memorable anecdote from your life that encapsulates the essence of your journey, perhaps something that didn’t make it into the book?
MW: I spent nine years writing my memoir, On That Note. In the midst of that period, I battled a rare and previously untreatable cancer that kept me bedridden for eight months.
I had initiated the book two years before falling ill but had to put it on hold for four years. As I began to recover, my perspective on life had shifted, and I resumed writing.
The memoir delves into my early years, growing up in New Orleans and Memphis, and the family’s move to Berkeley, California during the tumultuous sixties, which felt like being thrust into the eye of a hurricane.
I also recount my experiences performing alongside iconic musicians and those who played pivotal roles in my musical journey. The narrative extends to my observations of the racism I witnessed in the South, my relocation to New York City in the mid-seventies, and my adventures as a musician touring with renowned bands.
There’s a dedicated chapter about my tenure as the musical director of the Arsenio Hall talk show and the incredible musical guests we hosted. I didn’t mention some memorable moments with non-musical guests, such as spending time with legendary figures like comedian Milton Berle and engaging in meaningful conversations with Jerry Lewis. Another exhilarating aspect of the show was the opportunity to meet and spend time with many of my sports heroes, like Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, Muhammed Ali, Mike Tyson, and Sugar Ray Leonard. These interactions were incredibly enjoyable.
As for the world of music, I had the privilege of rehearsing and performing with an array of fantastic musicians, including Ray Charles, Mariah Carey, Ringo Starr, Seal, and James Brown, to name just a few.
The fact that I survived such a dreadful illness and am able to continue my musical career, alongside my roles as a husband and father, fills me with gratitude and makes me feel like the luckiest person in the world.
Thank you for sharing your incredible journey and insights with us. We’re eagerly looking forward to your performance at Zinc Bar on November 14th, and your life is a testament to the transformative power of music. To all our readers and jazz enthusiasts, make sure not to miss the opportunity to witness the enchanting performance of Michael Wolff, Ben Allison, and Allison Miller live on stage. It’s a night that promises to be unforgettable!