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March 2009

Michael Wolff’s ‘Joe’s Strut’

Critics have described Michael Wolff as a “polyglot” and a “chameleon.” On Joe’s Strut he segues from sophisticated postbop (“Harbour Island”) to unapologetic boogaloo (the title track, a Joe Zawinul tribute) to rarefied Ravel harmonies (“Wheel of Life”) to ferociously swung standards (“If I Were a Bell”) to open cinematic atmospheres (“The Third You”) to ballads pared down to the bone (“Come Rain or Come Shine”).

Only very clever, very skilled pianists can pull off such a program. The risk with musical chameleons is that their ability to adopt diverse roles prevents them from developing their own identities and their own language to express their innermost selves. Wolff mostly stays on the surface. The odd piano runs and crescendos that interrupt “Harbour Island” sound contrived. The single-note repetitions on “Come Rain or Come Shine,” presumably meant as incantatory, sound mannered.

But Wolff has compensating strengths. Based on Joe’s Strut and its predecessor, Jazz JAZZ jazz, they include enthusiasm and a commitment to quality control in matters like sidemen. Steve Wilson, who may have the loveliest, purest soprano saxophone sound in jazz, streams molten silver on “Wheel of Life.” And Wolff’s joy in playing piano is unmistakable and infectious. Just try to listen to him prance through “If I Were a Bell” without smiling.

Originally published in March 2009
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