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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)

6. Bill Ware
“Caravan” (Sir Duke, What’s New?). Ware, vibraphone; Marc Ribot, guitar. Recorded in 2001.

BEFORE: Okay, so I got the first few right, now I’m going to get this one wrong. The song is “Caravan.” Let me start with the guitarist—the only person that came to mind was Julian Lage. I cannot tell when this was recorded. I’m going to go with sometime around 2005 to 2010, but it stumps me. The one vibraphone player that came to mind, and I know it’s not him, was Mike Mainieri. I’m trying to think of somebody else who would use pickups on the vibes and who comps a little more than usual.

I like the way the guitarist was comping, like an old-school vibe, like Charlie Christian, but again times 10. You could tell the guitarist and vibist were having a lot of fun with the interplay, just jamming along on a popular song. They didn’t do anything special to arrange it, which is actually not a bad thing. I could tell they were probably in the studio saying, “Let’s just have some fun and see what happens.” It had a Brooklyn vibe to it‚ guys messing around in Brooklyn having fun. But I have no idea who that was. 

AFTER: Bill Ware, okay. I was going to say him eventually. That was actually cool, man. That definitely sounds like some Brooklyn stuff to me. He’s one of the vibraphone players I honestly have not checked out like I should have. I need to do more research on him.

7. Steps
“The Aleph (alternate take)” (Paradox­—Live at Seventh Avenue South, Better Days). Michael Brecker, tenor saxophone; Mike Mainieri, vibraphone; Dan Grolnick, keyboards; Eddie Gomez, bass; Peter Erskine, drums. Recorded in 1981.

BEFORE: That was a lot of fun. Very energetic. Let’s see—awww man, I don’t think you’d play the same artist twice, but if I had to really guess honestly I was going to say that was Bobby Hutcherson again, and that sounded like Tony Williams on the drums because of the way he was swinging. There’s not too many drummers that play quarter notes on the hi-hat when they’re swinging. Could be Herbie, and on bass, Ron Carter. If it wasn’t Ron, Buster Williams. I don’t know the song, but they were definitely playing free or they just decided to take it somewhere free. I don’t think that was Bobby because of the pickup system, not unless the sound guy EQ’d the hell out of it. 

Another part of me was going to say Mike Mainieri, again because of the pickups on the vibes, and Steps Ahead because I heard a horn player in there. Not 100% sure on this one. 

AFTER: Again, you don’t hear too many vibraphonists playing tricky melodies like that, and when I heard the tenor sound it wasn’t necessarily a Brecker sound for me, but I was thinking, “Okay, what group would actually feature a vibraphone player with this type of melody?” The whole rhythm-section component of it threw me off. I was like, “Steps Ahead,” and in this case it’s Steps—but at the same time I was like, “That’s Tony Williams …” So, Peter Erskine and Eddie Gomez. I was totally off, but I did get that it was Mike Mainieri. Cool. 

8. Jason Marsalis and the 21st Century Trad Band
“Bourbon Street Ain’t Mardi Gras” (Melody Reimagined: Book 1, Basin Street). Marsalis, vibraphone; Austin Johnson, piano; Will Goble, bass; Dave Potter, drums. Recorded in 2017.

BEFORE: I like the track. I like the vibes player. He was swinging and playing the changes. The one thing I did not like is that he quoted so many songs. I’m not a fan of that. He quoted “Stablemates,” I heard Stevie Wonder or something, any tune he could think of he just played it. But whoever this person is can play. The drummer played a particular fill that reminded me of Jeff “Tain” Watts, but I don’t think that was Jeff. The bass stumped me there. Piano I didn’t really hear enough of to know. But a fun song—it was bouncing, it felt good to play. I would actually love to play that song with my group. 

The first person that came to mind, but I know it’s not him, was Gary Burton. I’m trying to think who would play like this. Oh, what is his name—Christian Tamburr? I don’t think that’s him. I’m not sure. 

Here’s a hint. He’s as much known for his drumming as playing vibes. 

So it’s probably Jorge Rossy?

AFTER: There you go. He would have been my third choice. I should have guessed Jason. Jason is so swinging, all around: drummer, vibes player, and he likes playing this style of music. Maybe I’ll ask him one day, but I don’t understand why he would do all of these quotes in here. Really good recording and I thought the band was swinging really hard. I know those guys, not very well but I’ve played with them. They’ve been playing with Jason for a while.

9. George Shearing and the Montgomery Brothers
“Double Deal” (George Shearing and the Montgomery Brothers, Jazzland). Wes Montgomery, guitar; Shearing, piano; Buddy Montgomery, vibraphone; Monk Montgomery, bass; Walter Perkins, drums. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: You’re picking these tricky tracks. It’s definitely from sometime in the ’50s or ’60s. I like the song a lot, very simple, just chill, everybody’s playing the right chords, it felt great. The vibes player was great. He had a sense for playing chords, all the changes were there. Great feel. I was going to say Lionel Hampton but the oscillator wasn’t up high enough for it to be Hamp, so I took him off the list. Because of the Latin section at the end, I was going to say Cal Tjader, but probably not. And then if it wasn’t him, probably Roy Ayers, because I know he was swinging a lot at one point before he went pop and funk and hip-hop. I have no idea who the band was, no idea. The guitarist I would say was Wes Montgomery, but I’m probably way off on that one. The pianist sounds like George Shearing.

AFTER: Wow. Buddy Montgomery. Definitely not a record I would know. I got to check that out.

10. Roy Ayers Ubiquity
“Green and Gold” (Virgin Ubiquity: Unreleased Recordings 1976-1981, BBE). Ayers, vibraphone; Bobby Lyle, electric piano; Nathaniel Phillips, bass; Bruce Carter, drums. Recorded in 1978.

BEFORE: Very nice. Definitely that’s Roy Ayers. What gave that away is the funk sound. There isn’t one [other] vibist during that time who came out with a solid groove like that, you know, just straight. [Wolf looks behind him, distracted by his daughter jumping on the bed] Sorry about that, my daughter is behind me … 

She’s bouncing to the beat.

She hasn’t seen me all day [laughs]. There are a lot of vibe players who had vamps in their music, but not that solid R&B-radio feel. Plus, Roy was one of those guys who came out pretty much the same time as Bobby Hutcherson—they’re both from Los Angeles—and Roy was a great jazz player, just swinging and playing all types of chord changes, but then he completely went in another direction. “I’m going to stick with these vamps”—playing on one chord, and he started singing as well.

But no matter what he’s done or what style he went into, Roy’s still a vibes player, you know. He’s still one of us. I think Roy will always be one of the greatest vibes players, and they say he’s one of the most sampled musicians of all time. He actually put the instrument on the national map. A lot of people were and probably still are like, “What is this thing?” and still associate that instrument with the bells that they played in elementary school. So when people heard “Searching,” “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” all of those classics that he wrote, they were introduced to the vibes. I’ll put it like this: There’s been times I’ve taken my instrument out of a club and some random dude on the street will see what I’m moving and be like, “Man, you know who Roy Ayers is? That’s the cat right there.” That’s a tremendous thing. 

Warren, we’ve got to get you back to the family. Thanks for being so generous with your time—this has been fun.

I enjoyed it. It was a good chance for me to hear some different music I’m not aware of. The way I was raised by my dad, he didn’t play a lot of vibraphone music around the house because he wanted me to have an individual thing. The one vibes player that a lot of people don’t play too often was my teacher at Berklee, Dave Samuels.

Ha! That was going to be mystery track 12. 

What would that have been?

“The Long Way Home” from Del Sol.

Dave was the deal for me but eventually I had to get away from him, so I started to listen to more horn players and other people in order to—again, the one thing I keep saying is—have your own identity. I mean, as much as I respect every one of these players you’ve played, I never wanted to be like Milt Jackson or Dave Samuels or anybody else. I wanted to have my own voice. But it’s still good to hear them and know a lot has been done for this particular instrument.  

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.