Warren Wolf shows off incredible range in self-titled debut album
“What he does on vibes is pretty incredible. You can’t hear Warren and not be highly impressed. Give him some music to learn, he pretty much has it committed to memory in a matter of minutes. In a couple of days, he has it on the piano. Then suddenly, he’s internalizing every part of the music-the melody, the chord changes, the song’s overall personality. You’re listening to him, thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s what I had in mind.’” — Christian McBride
Vibraphonist Warren Wolf says he likes to go hard and fast, especially on the vibes he specializes in. But in his self-titled album, his first release with Mack Avenue Records August 16, 2011, he does a lot more than that.
The versatility is present in every song, whether it’s a studied, cascading remake of Chick Corea/Gary Burton’s “Señor Mouse,” a melodic finesse in Johnny Mandel’s “Emily,” made famous by Bill Evans, a whiz-bang throwdown that lets every instrument fly at breakneck speed in “One For Lenny,” or a fast-paced, non-stop rolling bounce of an opening number, “427 Mass Ave.”
“I’m trying to bring forth what most cats did back in the day, coming out right at you swinging, nice and hard, not a lot of hard melodies or weird time signatures,” explained the 31-year-old Baltimore musician. “I like to play really hard, fast and kind of flashy. I like to take it to a whole other level.”
A whole other level is exactly where Wolf takes it. He’s backed and equaled by a swinging band, including mentor/co-producer Christian McBride on bass, Peter Martin on piano, Greg Hutchinson on drums, Tim Green on alto and soprano sax, and Jeremy Pelt on trumpet.
Wolf impressed McBride straight away at a 2000 Jazz Aspen festival. The Jazz Aspen artistic director called his tune, “Shade Of The Cedar Tree,” and marveled as Wolf played his part — from memory. Besides having studied, practiced, lived and breathed Christian McBride for weeks, Wolf was able to put his own innately melodic spin on the vibes. This did not go unnoticed. “Warren was in the back of my brain after that,” McBride explained. “I promised him, ‘One of these days, I will get a band and hire you. I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but you will be there.’” And he did; Wolf’s been on McBride’s Inside Straight band since 2007.
“What he does on vibes is pretty incredible,” said McBride. “You can’t hear Warren and not be highly impressed. Give him some music to learn, he pretty much has it committed to memory in a matter of minutes. In a couple of days, he has it on the piano. Then suddenly, he’s internalizing every part of the music-the melody, the chord changes, the song’s overall personality. You’re listening to him, thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s what I had in mind.’”
Every song on this album is a hit. But three, “Natural Beauties,” “How I Feel At This Given Moment” and “Katrina,” put an indelible stamp on Warren Wolf as the next, great vibe player, worthy of playing with the big boys, and a musician who knows how to share the stage to create singular, collective masterpieces.
Led by a natural, caressing, rhythmic melody, “Natural Beauties” — an homage to women everywhere who don’t need make-up or plastic surgery to be attractive — dips slightly in the smooth jazz format without losing its sophistication (Green really nails the romance on his soprano sax, Martin fully embellishes each cross-over note on his piano with a laid-back flow, and Wolf just pulls it all together with flourish). What’s wonderful and truly jazz (but not unique to just this one song) is the true collaborative effort involved, with everybody putting their two cents in. Each solo within the piece could stand alone.
“How I Feel At This Given Moment” showcases Warren Wolf’s depth of melodic understanding, versatility of movement, theme, and feel, and ability to really rock a song to its core. His vibe/marimba expression is at turns restrained and thoughtful, then passionate and intense.
A dramatic show-stopper is what Wolf and his band do on “Katrina,” which reflects on the massive suffering from the 2005 hurricane. Minor keys, plaintive horns, a tension-filled piano edge set the tone for the devastation, death, and despair. Wolf’s power vibes tease the harmonics and evoke Wynton Marsalis’s New Orleans blues, in a fitting tribute.
A vibe player could go off doing his own thing, relegating the other musicians to the side, and be really one-note droning monotonous. (Imagine the horror of an album of just vibe chords up and down the charts, yikes.) But Warren Wolf extends every intro, every solo, every finish to everybody in the recording studio (and onstage), vibing off their ideas, having his say (the man is fast and furious, but can take things teasingly slow), then knowing when to step back and let the horns, piano, bass, and drums just flow.
For the musicians’ musician and jazz music’s best-kept secret (no longer), this CD could catapult him into the spotlight alongside the likes of Gary Burton, Chick Corea, and Christian McBride — heroes growing up. He’s that fabulous.
Review first appeared Oct. 19, 2011 in Examiner.