Through his three prior Mack Avenue Music Group releases and his attention-grabbing work with the likes of Christian McBride, Bobby Watson, Karriem Riggins, Jeremy Pelt, and the SFJAZZ Collective, Warren Wolf has established himself as the foremost straight-ahead vibraphonist of his generation, a bop torchbearer well equipped to carry the mantle of forebears like Bobby Hutcherson and Milt Jackson.
On his latest album, however, Wolf reveals an entirely different side to his multi-faceted talents. As the title implies, Reincarnation (due out February 28 via Mack Avenue Records) represents a rebirth of sorts for the Baltimore vibesman. In part it frees Wolf to indulge his love for the R&B and soul hits that served as the soundtrack to his formative years in the 1990s. It’s also a celebration of a new lease on life, a happiness and contentment that he’s discovered through a new marriage and his five beloved children.
“I realized I was about to turn 40,” explained Wolf, who reached that milestone on November 10, 2019. “I was 21 when I first went out on the road as a pro. So, for almost half my life I’ve been playing straight-ahead jazz. But that’s not how my dad, who was my first teacher, raised me musically. Jazz was always a part of it, but he wanted me to play everything: classical, R&B, hip-hop, ragtime, pop – but those things eventually faded away. Looking toward the second part of my life, I realized I need to bring those aspects back to life.”
For Reincarnation, the vibist realized he’d need a band equally versed in the jazz tradition and the sultry feel of vintage R&B. His compositions touched on the R&B groups that blared from the radio in his high school and college days: D’Angelo, Mint Condition, Prince, even 2Pac.
He found the ideal chemistry through a mix of scene veterans and rising stars. Drummer Carroll “CV” Dashiell III is, like Wolf, a second-generation musician. Strongly rooted in the church, he’s a rising star on the Washington D.C. jazz scene whose confidence captured Wolf’s attention. Wolf discovered Brett Williams early in the Pittsburgh keyboardist’s career, then followed his progress through his collaboration with bassist Marcus Miller.
“I first heard him playing freely over the changes on a blues and thought he sounded really good, with a nice time feel,” Wolf recalled. “When I heard him with Marcus Miller, I noticed his strong sense of R&B and gospel. That was a great combination.”
Bassist Richie Goods apprenticed under piano giant Mulgrew Miller before touring the world with GRAMMY®-winning trumpeter Chris Botti. In that band he crossed paths with guitarist Mark Whitfield, a fellow Young Lion whose six-string wizardry graces two tracks on the album.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when Wolf discovered the gifted vocalist Imani-Grace Cooper while she was still a student at Howard University, singing with one of the school’s famed choirs. “Even on jazz standards I could truly hear the gospel influence in her singing,” Wolf said. “That’s a perfect blend for me. She’s the most unknown member of the group, but I think after this people will start to take notice.”
For all its notions of rebirth and transformation, Wolf insists that at its core, Reincarnation is an album about love in its many facets. It begins with the idea of maternal love on “For Ma,” a heartfelt dedication to the composer’s mother, Celeste Wolf, who passed away in 2015. After Celeste’s retirement, Wolf’s father began teaching her to play the piano, and the two would often duet on the Motown songs that she adored. Wolf’s homage is embellished with the lush soulfulness and beaming tambourine groove so associated with the label’s countless hits.
If “Vahybing” explores any form of love, it’s simply the love of locking into a groove with a gathering of talented and responsive bandmates. The song is essentially an opportunity for the soloists to stretch out over an infectious vamp, with a couple of winking allusions buried within: the chords under the piano solo bring to mind hits from the hip-hop group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, while another section recalls a piece that Wolf played with drummer Willie Jones III.
Bassman channels his inner Barry White on the sultry “In the Heat of the Night,” alternating with Cooper’s sensuous vocal, narrating her approach to a lover’s rendezvous. The titular heat is palpable through the slinky groove and impassioned interjections by Whitfield and Williams (on Rhodes). The more romantic side of love is represented by Wolf’s arrangement of The Isley Brothers’ “For the Love of You,” the album’s sole non-original and a favorite of the vibraphonist.
“The Struggle” introduces the notion of tragic heartbreak through the suffering faced by several of Wolf’s loved ones from a horrendous car accident affecting his ex-wife to the travails of the Baltimore streets, which has claimed the life of one family member and recreated another as a gang activist.
“Sebastian and Zoë” is a joyous tribute from an adoring father to his two youngest children – or, as Shepard purrs, his “Wolf babies.” The ¾ waltz “Come and Dance With Me” was penned for Wolf’s wife, a ballerina and teacher who he hopes will use the song in her classes – and perhaps join him on stage one day to show off her steps in time with the song.
The ebullient “Living the Good Life” provides a warm summation of the album’s theme and of Wolf’s current happiness. It also provides the album’s only instance of swing rhythm – just a brief detour for a single minute, to prove to longtime fans that Wolf hasn’t abandoned his straight-ahead chops.
“This is just an album about love and feel-good music,” Wolf summed up. “At this point in my career, I just wanted to show that I can be versatile in many different styles. I plan to continue to grow and play all the wonderful music that has shaped me as a musician today.”
Wolf knew Marcellus “Bassman” Shepard, aka “The Man with the Voice,” through his role as a DJ on Baltimore’s WEAA 88.9. Shepard’s window-rattling baritone serves as emcee and Greek chorus throughout the album, providing a radio-style intro for the album on the opening track, “Smooth Intro,” and a summary farewell on the bookending “Smooth Outro.”
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