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Warren Wolf: A Before & After Listening Session

The multi-instrumentalist talks mallets, oscillators, pickups, and treating the song like a vibe

Warren Wolf
Warren Wolf (photo: Roy Cox)

After a year of lockdown, it’s getting hard to tell if someone is naturally gregarious, or if the need for conversation and interaction is driving the urge to speak in longer bursts. With Warren Wolf, who’s been at home in Baltimore since the start of the pandemic, a jovial spark and conversational flow come across as his normal groove.

“It’s funny,” he says when asked how he’s been faring. “Next week will be about one year since the lockdown started and honestly, I’ve continued to perform. Maybe not worldwide like I would normally, but I’ve been bouncing between two venues here in Baltimore, An Die Musik and Keystone Korner Baltimore. Also doing a lot of home recordings, home master classes, some performances virtually from home, and a lot of teaching for the Peabody Conservatory and San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I had my first out-of-town gig last week, performing at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with my quartet. It was a great feeling to travel and actually play for some people again.”

Whew. Is that all? “Well, I just got a didgeridoo!” Wolf exclaims, and the multi-instrumentalist—most known for his vibraphone playing but respected as a drummer and a pianist as well—hustles to a corner of his home studio to show off his new acquisition. Not leaning on the wall, not stuffed into a gig bag, but in its own road case. Impressive. Anything else going on?

“I have two recent records out—my last one was titled Christmas Vibes, that came out in September, and the one before that was Reincarnation, my tribute to all of that soul music of the ’80s and ’90s I heard coming up: Roy Ayers, Anita Baker, Yellowjackets, I was such a fan of that style of music. I’m trying to figure out what I want to do next. I have my heart set on doing a Latin record, something in the range of Cal Tjader and Tito Puente, but I’m not sure yet. I got a lot of options there.”

One more question before we launched into the Before & After, Wolf’s first for JazzTimes: Now that vaccinations are underway, what do you expect will happen next? “I’m really not sure but I think the music is going to come back strong. Somebody said this to me a few days ago, about jazz going through that weird period in the ’70s. Then it had that resurgence in the ’80s when Wynton and Tain and that whole crew came out. I look at that compared to this, and I say, ‘It’s okay. Let’s just relax and see what’s going to come.’ I know some clubs have closed, but you know, clubs come and go. I think somebody else will always step up to the plate, and meanwhile we’ll be there. The musicians will always be right there.”

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the tracks in this Before & After session:

1. Herbie Hancock
“It’s Only a Paper Moon” (The Other Side of ’Round Midnight, Columbia). Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphone; Hancock, piano; Pierre Michelot, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. Recorded in 1985.

BEFORE: For some reason I was going to say either Bob Cranshaw or Buster Williams on bass, or it could have been Rufus Reid. One of those three. As far as the vibes go, at first I was going to say Milt Jackson but it’s definitely not him, so either Bobby Hutcherson or Jay Hoggard. Bobby plays tunes like that, but the one reason I didn’t think it was Bobby is because Bobby typically would play a lot more on that vamp, that F suspended chord. The reason I did think it was Bobby is because of the sound he typically gets from the mallets he uses. They’re pretty much the same on all of his recordings from the ’70s on, and he pretty much plays in a higher register when he’s soloing.

I didn’t recognize the tune but the performance was cool. The drummer could have been Joe Chambers, but I was expecting more from the drums, which would have brought the song out a bit more. It’s a good song but I would have liked for the band just to be—I won’t say tighter—just stronger. One thing is that the vibes solo never happens, but you expect it. There were some flurries of notes and then all of a sudden he pulled back. So it’s kind of like they treated the song like a, no pun intended, vibe: “Let’s have fun on this chord a little bit.”

AFTER: I would have never guessed Herbie! Herbie would typically play a lot more. I figured that was Bobby. Good recording. This was like Miles’ “Nefertiti” the way they played it—those two tunes are very similar. They’re both in the same key, I mean just far less chords. That little hit section, I’ve heard Bobby actually do that on “Paper Moon,” because I played that arrangement with him a few years ago for his 70th birthday party in San Francisco. So that’s always been in his repertoire.      

Bobby is one of the all-time masters of the vibes. This is not to take away from any of the others, but he took the vibes from what Milt Jackson was doing and came out with the whole four-mallet thing, playing modal, with giants like Freddie [Hubbard] and Eric Dolphy and Jackie [McLean]. People were not used to hearing the vibes being played like that. It was like, “Wait, what’s this new sound?” Awesome player.

2. Sasha Berliner
“Foreword/San Francisco (Interlude)” (live at NYC Winter JazzFest, YouTube video). Berliner, vibraphone; Chris McCarthy, piano; Morgan Guerin, EWI; Leonor Falcón Pasquali, violin; Lucas Saur, cello; Kanoa Mendenhall, bass; Jongkuk Kim, drums. Recorded in 2020.

BEFORE: [Wolf averts eyes from laptop screen] Very interesting. Computer music with a lot of sounds and everything else. Based around the vibraphone, which is interesting. There are a handful of players who are, to my knowledge, doing this stuff right now. One is Simon Moullier. He’s French and lives in New York, and went to Berklee. I know he’s been experimenting with all types of sounds. I’ve seen some videos of him with Darren Barrett’s ensemble and was blown away by the stuff that he was doing. Also, Christos Rafalides and Manhattan Vibes, he uses these kinds of sounds a lot. And then there’s a young vibist from San Francisco, Sasha Berliner, so it would probably be one of those three. I actually saw Sasha in person at SFJazz playing something that was similar to this. If I had to pick it would probably be either her or Simon. 

The music was really good—I enjoyed it. A lot of flavors there, a lot of colors. I could not tell what was what, like maybe a keyboard player was playing some pads, or if it was an electric bass or upright. I couldn’t tell any of that. I didn’t recognize anybody’s playing, so it would definitely be some younger players that I’m just not hip to. I don’t hear too many musicians my age or older doing things like that. I’m sure there are, but not too many.

AFTER: [Watches screen as performance replays] Oh yeah, that’s Sasha. You know the thing I like about her? Her progress has been amazing. This is year six or seven for me in the SFJazz Collective, and I think I met her in my third year, four years ago, when she was still a senior in high school. Most players out of high school, before they even try to get into this style of composition, they’re just trying to swing. Sasha can do that, but it’s so cool to hear somebody at this age taking her own approach to this style of music. Speaking for myself, I can play this but I don’t hear it—I don’t write music like this but I’ll go check it out. I also like that she can showcase the vibes for even younger people and help keep this instrument going. I know she’s been doing work with Tyshawn Sorey sometimes, but outside of that, it’s her own thing.

That’s another thing—not many people want to hire a vibes player because the vibraphone is not a normal thing. Trust me, if somebody is getting you to play vibes in their band, they really want you and they’re willing to take on everything that comes along with that: Somebody has to rent or borrow a set or ask the promoter to come up with more money, and not all vibes will be the best. I mean, I work with Christian McBride and SFJazz and had stints in other people’s bands, but for the most part I had to start my own band and come out by myself, and Sasha is doing the same thing. And to do that as a younger leader [Berliner is 22], that’s awesome.

So there’s not a Musser waiting in the backroom of every club by now? 

[Laughs] There’s only been two clubs where I’ve seen a set of vibes always there, and you don’t have to bring anything: Smalls [in New York City] and Marian’s Jazz Room in Berne, Switzerland. And I think they have a set in the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, but I haven’t played there yet. But anywhere else, you better be bringing some vibes with you.

3. Stefon Harris
“Sunset and the Mockingbird” (African Tarantella, Blue Note). Anne Drummond, flute; Greg Tardy, clarinet; Steve Turre, trombone; Harris, vibraphone; Xavier Davis, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Jonah Chung, viola; Louise Dublin, cello; Terreon Gully, drums. Recorded in 2005.

BEFORE: A musician like me, a multi-instrumentalist, I never really listen to a lot of vibraphone players. But when I do, I listen to everything because I like playing drums, bass, piano. I study horns, everything. So that was Stefon Harris, and honestly I knew it from the drums. Terreon Gully has a great sound and a very particular sound. I talk to my students about this: What is your identity? You don’t want to come out sounding like everybody else. And Terreon has a particular style—he’ll be swinging but the way he tunes his drums and the way he does certain fills, that gives him away quickly. If you’re a fan of Terreon you’ll know this. Bass, it’s either Ben Williams or Derrick Hodge. On piano I’m assuming that was Marc Cary, but I’m not really sure. 

What gave it away as Stefon was when it first started—and I’m not being funny—I was like, “When did I do this record?” There’s a certain thing that a lot of vibes players don’t do nowadays; they don’t really add the whole blues effect to it. But Stefon is one of those guys who does that very well. So yeah, I just automatically knew that was him.

Also one minor thing—minor but major when it comes to Stefon Harris’ playing—his singing gives it away. You can hear it in some of his recordings and I heard just a tad of it in this one, somebody singing in the background. He has a medium singing voice and he talks a little bit higher than me, but when he plays the vibes and starts singing he can go super-high if he’s singing a soprano line. It really sticks out, which is cool.

The song was beautiful, it had a nice groove but then it went to that nice slow swing. A lot of musicians don’t swing that hard. Stefon and the whole band were swinging like the MJQ times 10, like, “We’re bringing this into the 21st century.” I’m going to guess this was recorded recently, sometime around 2018 to now.

AFTER: [Wolf looks at image of album cover] I’m going to ask Stefon about this cover, like, “Tell me that was a fake spider on your head.” Me, you couldn’t pay me to do that.

4. Milt Jackson
“I’m Not So Sure” (Olinga, CTI). Jimmy Heath, soprano saxophone; Jackson, vibraphone; Cedar Walton, electric piano; Ron Carter, electric bass; Mickey Roker, drums. Recorded in 1974.

BEFORE: I was trying to guess the rhythm section. This is definitely in the ’70s. The bass player sounds like somebody who played with the Temptations. 

James Jamerson? 

Yeah. Then I thought that was Bob Cranshaw on the electric bass. I was thinking Lenny White on drums or Mickey Roker on drums. Soprano saxophone, for some reason Gary Bartz came to mind, and keyboard players are tricky, I don’t really know that. But this particular vibist is one who played around with a lot of people—that was Milt Jackson, definitely. He plays the same way in any style or sound. It can be a Latin record, it can be this funk track we just heard, or if he was playing with one of those all-star groups with Ray Brown, or the MJQ. Even in his later years, Milt has an identity—the way he set the oscillator [on the vibraphone] was pretty much always the same. He used the same mallets all the time and had the same attack consistently with each stroke on the bars. 

Milt Jackson was one of the vibes players my dad introduced me to when I was just a five- or six-year-old kid. The record that my dad played a lot was called The Last Concert [1975, Atlantic], which was before the MJQ got back together.

AFTER: Nice E-flat minor funk. I have never even heard of this record. I was going to say CTI but I didn’t want to be wrong. Part of me was going to say Ron Carter but I know how much he despised the electric, so I left it alone. Jimmy Heath, okay. See, to my knowledge Milt never had one set group. I’m sure he had particular people he liked playing with.

5. Mulgrew Miller
“The Eleventh Hour” (Wingspan, Savoy). Kenny Garrett, alto saxophone; Miller, piano; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Charnett Moffett, bass; Tony Reedus, drums. Recorded in 1987.

BEFORE: [Smiles broadly] That was Mr. Steve Nelson. I forget the name but I know the tune. It’s by Mulgrew Miller and that was his group Wingspan. When it started, before hearing the melody, I heard the bass sound and I was like, “Okay, this is an ’80s tune.” But then after listening to the song I was like, “Okay, this is the late ’90s or early 2000s,” and I had a question—because obviously somebody put the bass in direct and a lot of bass players nowadays hate that sound.

This is from ’87. 

Really? Oh wow. Okay, but that was definitely Steve Nelson and I think that was Steve Wilson on alto. The drums, I was going to say Rodney Green, but Rodney was not playing with Mulgrew at that time. I’m curious to know. 

Steve has a particular way about playing the vibes. He brings thunder with the instrument, kind of like the Bobby Hutcherson of today, if you know what I mean. A lot of harmony, a lot of soul, a lot of passion. Again, it’s a certain style of playing that you don’t hear from too many of today’s artists. There’s very few who still like to play this hard bop style on the vibes.

Steve Nelson is a beautiful cat, man. I think the last time I sat in with him was when he was playing with his group featuring Terell Stafford. They were at Smoke and, from what I’ve heard, Steve doesn’t like people to sit in, but I went up there and asked him. I said, “Bro, let me play a tune with you,” and he was like, “All right, let’s do it.” So we played on one instrument, split a blues, played a couple choruses. And nobody got hurt. [Laughs]

AFTER: Mulgrew and Kenny Garrett were best friends, and Kenny is tremendously unique with his sound. But for some reason what I heard I thought was Steve Wilson. 

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.