Album review

Michael Wolff – ‘Live at Vitellos’

Michael Wolff – Live at Vitellos
(Sunnyside Records SSC1615. Album review by Len Weinreich

Some sketched background: New Orleans-born, Los Angeles-resident Michael Wolff is a pianist affected by Tourette’s Syndrome: “a common neurodevelopmental disorder that begins in childhood or adolescence, characterized by multiple movement tics and at least one vocal tic” (grateful nod to Wikipedia). And Mark Isham (interview here from 2020), trumpeter and flugelhornist on this atmospheric album, recorded live at Vitellos, a club in Los Angeles’ Studio City, is deeply immersed in moving pictures, having written, directed and acted in them, and also contributed to a list of soundtracks as long as your arm.

However, a question hovers over the enterprise: this album was recorded in 2011. Ten whole years ago. Why was it kept under wraps? But before we learn the reason, let’s attend the music. The first track, Ballad Noir, composed by Wolff for ‘Tic Code’ a film loosely based on his own life is, understandably, accurately titled, a pensive, dirge-like theme.

Fortunately, Wolff’s medical affliction doesn’t seem to affect his superb pianism, and the downbeat mood is quickly dispelled by the next track, Lagniappe, a Creole expression from Wolff’s New Orleans background. It means something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure like, for example, a small gift given to a customer by a merchant at the time of a purchase (yet another nod to Wikipedia). The galloping theme uses in the piano’s contralto register reminding this reviewer of those breathless perpetual motion lines Lennie Tristano recorded for the Atlantic label in the 1950s. The formidable rhythm section, John B. Williams’ bass and Mike Clark’s drums, produce unfaltering support, resulting from having been welded together in the fierce heat of Cannonball Adderly and Herbie Hancock groups. Isham is in flashing form and Clark produces a drum interlude that stirs the crowd.

The season between summer and winter has a melancholy, though magnetic, effect on composers. Think of the ballads: ‘Early Autumn’, ‘Autumn Leaves’ ‘Autumn in New York’, ‘’Tis Autumn’, all eternally attractive to jazz improvisors. Wayne Shorter’s Fall opens with descending pianochords accompanied by swishing cymbal accents evoking downward fluttering leaves. Isham’s contemplative flugelhorn is the aural equivalent of a well-insulated stroll across a crisp forest floor with Williams’ resonant bass reinforcing the prevailing wistfulness.

Curiously, the track following ‘Fall’ is a Wolff composition titled Falling Down. Laying down sinuous desert rhythms, it salutes the tradition established by Ellington and Gillespie, those lovers of exotica, of conjuring spicy impressions of Sahel camels and Arabian turbans to stimulate the fantasies of blasé night club habitues.

Wolff’s The Conversation has an oblique melody at slow tempo piece taken soulfully by Isham whose intonation and breath control are precise and admirable. Wolff approaches each note with careful deliberation, sounding distant hints of Debussy, all sensitively enhanced by Williams’ thoughtful bass lines.

Wolff introduces Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti, the album’s longest track, softly with a short meditation over suspended chords and understated rhythm before Isham plays the familiar theme, increasing the volume over a strengthening beat, weaving intricate variations (now you recognise it, now you don’t) on the melody as the excitement mounts, helped by Mike Clark’s energetic percussion. The performance receives well-deserved audience approval.

Mike Clark and Jed Levy’s concise Loft Funk opens with a ferocious beat from bass and drums. The piano adds rumbling staccato chords before Isham introduces an intricate little figure until they stop with an ending both brusque and unexpected.

Producer Nic. tenBroek (the spelling of his name really annoys the hell out of my computer SpellCheck) and Oscar-nominated sound engineer Dan Wallin both deserve an extra round of applause for the realistic club ambience and sound. But why was this music hidden for a decade? Wolff has kindly supplied LJN with the answer: “I was trying to find the right time to release it, but I kept making new albums until the arrival of Covid. Then it seemed perfect”. Good news – like this album – is worth waiting for.

Michael Wolff, piano; Mark Isham, trumpet and flugelhorn; John B. Williams, bass; Mike Clark, drums. Recorded live at Vitellos, Studio City, Los Angeles, California August 2011.

LINK: Live at Vitellos on Bandcamp

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