Michael Wolff fondly recalls formative days when first encountering sounds of tabla and African world beat. Today it explains why his percussive piano greets him in artistic overdrive. Then again, there”s nothing ordinary and predictable about Wolff”s wide-ranging palette in piano jazz.

Paul Wong
Piano Jazz artist Michael Wolff.<br><br>Courtesy of Indianola Music Group

Last year marked Wolff”s eponymous debut Impure Thoughts, a recording hailed by critics as one the year”s best in jazz. With Intoxicate (both on Indianola Music Group), Wolff dishes up more arrays of Indian drone, jazz and rhythmic accentuation. Artistic momentum in hand, his Impure Thoughts sextet sails into Ann Arbor”s Bird of Paradise jazz club today and tomorrow amidst a national tour.

“My inspiration goes back to the end of high school and college. My teacher Bill Mathers, at San Francisco State in the 1970s, and quality time spent with Hungarian, African and Pygmy music,” said Wolff by telephone from his New York home.

“When I heard tabla and African beats I knew right then this was a good match. My friend John Cartwright worked in New York with Harry Belafonte alongside musicians like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. He agreed, it would be a great idea.”

Wolff”s varied experience was another factor. Career credentials blossomed from straight-ahead jazz (Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson, Cal Tjader), hip acclaim in Tinseltown as the “Arsenio Hall Show” music director and scoring independent movies (“The Tic Code,” “Made Up”). As a solo jazz artist, he”s released seven records the past 10 years.

What pianist-composer-arranger Wolff calls redeeming today is playing music the way he”s always heard it on the road, around the world, while finding inspiration from cultural vistas.

“In the past I released some great straight-ahead albums but I felt I was just marking time,” he said. “So these world beat influences came at the right time, a precise concept to use with my band. From travels to places like Portugal, Paris and South America I always kept the music door wide open.”

Impure Thoughts boasts top-drawer sidemen in Indian tabla master Badal Roy, percussionist Frank Colon, bassist John B. Williams (his Arsenio Hall days bandmate), saxophonist Alex Foster (Mingus Big Band) and drummer Victor Jones. Wolff emphasizes group interplay and variations are integral ingredients.

“As a pianist and arranger, I find I”m shaping what”s coming from the band. We improvise from a starting baseline, but audiences affect our musical direction. So I”m balancing interaction with performance,” he said.

From his storied arranging days with Wilson and Hall, he honed skills for melding orchestral layers with the piano”s invariable percussive side. It afforded him acoustic freedoms, exploring rhythmic variation and melodic texture at every compositional turn.

On Intoxicate Wolff constructs a creative package of tension and release. Tracks like Wayne Shorter”s “Witch Hunt” show how Wolff spirals around Williams” repeating bass pattern. Offering density within a post-modernist approach to keyboarded improvisation, he spiced the mix with doses of Wurlitzer electric piano and organ.

Elsewhere, Wolff”s musicality puts acoustic piano center stage on transcendent grooves, all underscored by exoticism served up by Roy”s tabla and Colon”s Brazilian percussion. Variety looms large in a compelling rework of Marvin Gaye”s “Sexual Healing,” plus the supreme meditative glisten of Lee Morgan”s “Sidewinder.”

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