Unlike legendary New Orleans jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, who left their hometown to achieve fame and rarely ever came back home, pianist and composer Michael Wolff has proven to be an exception. Raised as a youngster in New Orleans, he has returned to what he regards as his hometown yearly and has camped out at Snug Harbor, the city’s premiere jazz club, for most of the past five Thanksgiving holidays.
Wolff, who has played with highly regarded jazz and contemporary pop performers like Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderly and the late Warren Zevon, garnered national interest when he served as the musical director on the Arsenio Hall Show. But even after the gig with Hall was over, Wolff consistently toured and plied his craft on the piano keyboards creating an impressive set of original compositions and musical stylings from the works of jazz and popular composers.
More recently, the 59-year-old Wolff has teamed up with former Herbie Hancock drummer Mike Clark, a respected artist and performer with outstanding jazz and funk credentials. The two enjoyed performing together over the last several years so much, they formed a new trio with bassist John B. Williams called the Wolff and Clark Expedition.
“We’re kinda mixing up some of this funk style and mixing it with jazz. I call it ‘junk jazz,’” he says. With Wolff’s New Orleans and Memphis roots (his family moved there while he was still a kid) jazz, blues and funk come easy to him. But like Clark, he also enjoyed time growing up in the San Francisco Bay area and the two were exposed to many of the same musical influences, although Wolff is five years his junior. “He’s a really great drummer and one of the most original drummers I know,” Wolff says of his creative partner. “He has his own way of feeling his own sound.”
Through the years both Wolff and Clark have led their own groups. Perhaps because of their common musical backgrounds, integrating each other’s playing style with the other has come easy, Wolff suggests. Aside from funk-tinged jazz they still do quite a bit of straight ahead jazz. “None of it is perfect or pristine,” he warns, explaining the players would be too easily bored if they played every song note for note night after night.
The experience Clark brings to the table is notable, Wolff continues. “Like me, he got to play with some of the most famous people in the Seventies,” adding that both their heroes were Miles Davis and Hancock. “I think that what we (both) bring is that experience, but being more single-minded about wanting to be creative and still loose, so nothing is rigid.”
Over the course of the summer Wolff recorded two new albums. The first was the self-titled Wolff and Clark Expedition album containing well known Seventies classics like “For the Love of Money” and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” as well as standards like Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father.” He promises to cover all or most of that material in his two upcoming nights of performances at Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro this Friday and Saturday nights.
The second album Wolff recorded was that of his Michael Wolff Quartet with bassist Williams and Mark Isham on trumpet. That release features his own original compositions and those of Wayne Shorter, Davis and others.
Wolff has recently been working in various capacities with his famous sons Nat and Alex Wolff, previously known as The Naked Brothers Band. Formerly seen over Nickolodeon, the TV series named the “Naked Brothers Band” helped launch their real life careers following release of a movie of the same title directed by their mom and Wolff’s wife, Polly Draper (“Thirty Something’). Wolff was featured as a nerdy dad in his sons’ vehicle, which also featured their original musical selections. Their recently released “Black Sheep” is their first studio recording since the demise of the series and the two are touring at clubs around the country in support of the CD.
Alex has just completed shooting a new movie “Hairbrained” in which he stars with Brendan Fraser as a 13-year-old college genius. Meanwhile, older brother Nat is featured in the upcoming holiday release “New Year’s Eve” along with a plethora of major film stars. Wolff says Nat also finished shooting “Peace, Love and Misunderstanding” with Australian film director Bruce Beresford (“Tender Mercies” and “Driving Miss Daisy“) and that film is scheduled for release in 2012. Both boys continue to tour in support of “Black Sheep.”
Understandably proud of his boys, both of whom he considers “amazing actors,” Wolff is reluctantly traveling to the Crescent City without his creative and loving wife. Draper is in the middle of a six-week run off-Broadway in a role in “Standing on Ceremony,” an evening of short plays about gay marriage. Sadly, because of her contract, she won’t be able to join with other family members in New Orleans for Thanksgiving celebrations.
Meanwhile, Wolff and Clark have made plans to give back to jazz students in the area. Tuesday and Wednesday they scheduled master classes at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts as well as at the University of New Orleans.
There will be two shows nightly at Snug Harbor on both Friday, November 25 and Saturday, November 26. Start times are 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. with doors opening one hour before each show. Tickets for the Wolff and Clark Expedition featuring Michael Wolff and Mike Clark are $25.00 each and available by dialing 504-949-0696 and leaving credit card information.