It’s no exaggeration to state that the release of Warren Wolf, the eponymous debut album for Mack Avenue Records by Warren Wolf, will make it as apparent to jazz fans as it already is to jazz insiders that the 31-year-old vibraphonist is the next major voice on his instrument. Joined by a unit of authoritative swingers (bassist Christian McBride, pianist Peter Martin, drummer Greg Hutchinson, alto and soprano saxophonist Tim Green, and, on two tracks, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt), Wolf offers a ten-piece program that admirably represents his singular blend of efflorescent chops, muscular attack, lyric sensibility, harmonic acumen, encyclopedic knowledge of hardcore jazz vocabulary, tireless groove and downright musicality.
“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,” Wolf says. “I like to play really hard, fast and kind of flashy. I like to take it to a whole other level.”
“What he does on vibes is pretty incredible,” says McBride, Wolf’s employer since 2007 in the Inside Straight band and co-producer of this album along with Mack Avenue EVP of A&R, Al Pryor. He used to introduce Wolf as “the Cyborg,” in affectionate tribute to his head-shaking—but never robotic—feats of instrumental derring-do. “You can’t hear Warren and not be highly impressed,” he says. “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.’”
McBride first encountered Wolf in 2000 at Jazz Aspen, during the bass great’s first year as Artistic Director. “I wanted to play with Christian,” Wolf states. “So I decided to buy all his records and be ready to play whatever tune he called.” At the moment of truth, he played “Shade of the Cedar Tree” without sheet music. McBride picks up the narrative: “I was flattered, I was impressed, and I was shocked to hear somebody play the vibes with so much melodic content. Warren was in the back of my brain after that. 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.’”
At the time, Wolf was attending Berklee College of Music, from which he graduated in 2001. Born and raised in Baltimore, where he currently resides, he’s less widely known to “civilians” than his bona fides would merit. Still, he’s anything but a newcomer on the scene. In addition to two self-released recordings and two dates for the Japanese market on which he tears through producer-selected repertoire with panache and an informed point of view, his CV includes gigs with such eminent veterans as McBride, Bobby Watson, Mulgrew Miller and Tim Warfield, and recent encounters with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the George Coleman-Joey DeFrancesco Quartet and a Music of the Modern Jazz Quartet project led by pianist Aaron Diehl, the 2011 American Pianists Association Cole Porter Fellowship winner. He also leads a strong working unit with Green, pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Kris Funn and drummer John Lamkin.
For Wolf to interpret the MJQ’s music is eminently apropos, as he considers Milt Jackson a primary influence. “When I heard him, I realized that’s how I want the vibes to sound,” Wolf recalls. “But I always wanted to style myself to play like a horn player. Charlie Parker’s recordings with Miles were my biggest influence. Later I listened to Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and people like that.”
The namesake son of a school-teacher who is an amateur percussionist and the grandson of James Wolf, a gigging jazz pianist around Baltimore since the ‘50s, Wolf has, as he puts it, “been going hard at music since the age of three.” “I had a very strict musical upbringing,” he told Downbeat magazine last fall. “Until I left high school, I practiced five days a week, kind of like a regular job—30 minutes on drums, 30 minutes on the mallets (vibraphone/marimba) and then 30 minutes on piano. Over that course of time, not to sound conceited, I got very good on all three instruments. Vibes was the instrument I happened to get best at.”
“427 Mass Ave.,” the set opener, is “a simple I-IV-V blues” named for the street address of Wally’s, a venerable Cambridge bar where several generations of Boston students have performed. There, Wolf told Downbeat, “I figured out ways to get the endurance and power to get a decent sound out of the vibes. I started weightlifting so I could get more force. Now I try to calm down, but sometimes you can’t help it because of the spirit and emotion of the music.” That’s an accurate description of the leader’s volcanic declamation, propelled by Hutchinson’s funky 21st century beats, following vigorous testimony from Green and Pelt, and preceding a pungent statement by McBride.
The ambiance turns romantic on Wolf’s laid-back, bossa-esque “Natural Beauties,” a paean to women who don’t artificially enhance their beauty. Martin, Wolf and Green (soprano saxophone) reinforce the sentiment with romance-tinged solos.
“I could imagine Bobby Watson playing a few lines of it,” Wolf says of “Sweet Bread,” a surging sextet track that blends soul and harmonic sophistication in a manner reminiscent of the master altoist, who included it in his book when he took Wolf on the road.
On the ballad “How I Feel At This Given Moment,” Wolf states the melody on vibraphone then shifts to marimba for his solo. “I wanted to add the marimba’s delicate wooden sound,” Wolf says. “Sometimes I compare it to the acoustic bass; depending upon the mallets you use, you can control the sound in many different ways.”
Penned by Wolf’s close playing partner and fellow Baltimorean, Tim Green, “Eva” offers “nonstop movement, lots of chords from measure to measure.” “I can be a complex musician, too; everything doesn’t have to be bluesy and straightforward,” says Wolf, who proves the point on a vertiginous, swinging solo.
In addressing Chick Corea’s iconic “Señor Mouse,” originally a duo vehicle for Corea and Gary Burton on the album Crystal Silence, Wolf eschews the piano, instead overdubbing the vibraphone improvisation over a marimba part executed with admirable technique and feeling. He displays similar sensitivity on Johnny Mandel’s “Emily,” most commonly associated with Bill Evans, and addressed here as a waltz. “I wanted something you could possibly dance to,” Wolf says. “Also it’s a peaceful, sing-able melody, and fits the vibes very well.”
“Katrina” is a minor blues composed in response to those who suffered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After an opening etude, on which McBride bows the bass line, Hutchinson sound-paints on cymbals and small percussion, Green plays the melody, and Wolf and Martin lay out the harmonic structure, there ensues a slow New Orleans style blues that evokes the sound of Wynton Marsalis circa Soul Gestures in Southern Blue.
Greg Hutchinson propels “One For Lenny” at a supersonic tempo that might satisfy Boston drummer Lenny Nelson, who, Wolf recalls, “would come to Wally’s and tell us ‘Let’s take it uptown,’ meaning as fast as possible.” Wolf, Green, Martin and McBride fulfill that imperative admirably.
The proceedings conclude with Peter Martin’s “Intimate Dance,” a pretty ballad in three, highlighted by Wolf’s yearning rubato solo. “After all the energy that came forth,” Wolf says, “I wanted to wind things down, end the session with something slow.”
“I don’t think there’s anything Warren can’t handle,” McBride says. “My dream for him is that he eventually gets to collaborate with the super-duper heavyweights. I can’t wait to see where he’ll go next.”