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10/17/13

Warren Wolf
Wolfgang
Mack Avenue Records

On the strength of his membership in ensembles led by Christian McBride and Aaron Diehl and his own auspicious Mack Avenue debut in 2011, Warren Wolf appears on a path to stardom as arguably the most exciting bop vibraphonist since Bobby Hutcherson. For Wolfgang, his followup collection on Mack Avenue, Wolf said he wanted to showcase his writing skills and provide more melodies that people can remember. For precisely those reasons, Wolfgang suffers by comparison with his previous work.

Wolf composed six of the nine songs. Two of them, “Wolfgang” and “Annoyance,” are classically oriented pieces, but the writing isn’t rich or sophisticated enough to withstand scrutiny as chamber music. The playing itself is superb, be it Wolf’s low-toned resonance on “Wolfgang” (a duet with pianist Diehl) or the bowing of Christian McBride on “Annoyance.” But those songs and two covers—a rendition of Ivan Lins’ “Setembro,” with wordless, Beach Boys-like vocal harmonies from Darryl Tookes, and another classical duet with Diehl, the waltz “Le Carnaval de Venise” by Jean-Baptiste Arban—lack the dynamism and distinction that compels repeated listenings.

The best song on the disc is a Wolf original, a slightly circumspect blues, “Things Were Done Yesterday,” which prompts memorable chemistry between Wolf and pianist Benny Green, undergirded by the killer rhythm tandem of McBride and drummer Lewis Nash. This quartet also plays on “Annoyance” and a version of the traditional “Frankie and Johnny” in which Wolf shines but McBride’s bass solo is a little too beholden to Ray Brown’s take with Milt Jackson.

Indeed, it is hard for a vibraphonist of Wolf’s talent not to shine, which is what makes Wolfgang feel like a missed opportunity. Not once, for example, do Wolf and Benny Green—two of the most enthralling hard-bop stylists around today—really cut loose together. Next time, here’s hoping Wolf realizes that it is not the melodies that are memorable so much as what he does with them.

Originally published in October 2013
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