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A Portrait of Warren Wolf

Anytime, anywhere, the vibraphonist delivers striking chops and soulful musicality

Wolf performs with Christian McBride's Inside Straight at Birdland in 2012
Wolf and the SFJAZZ Collective at the organization's posh San Francisco facility
Warren Wolf

It’s an early Friday evening in May in Washington, D.C., and Warren Wolf is already on a tear.

He and his quartet, the Wolfpack, first work out “On Green Dolphin Street.” Wolf rains light-speed melody all over his vibraphone, tinting it with short Monk-like phrases, and swings the hell out of it in the process. He’s a strapping, muscular man-a gym addict-and he stands over the vibes in the same squared-off stance that Milt Jackson did. It makes him look like he’s preparing to wrestle an alligator.

Next comes a Wolf composition, “The Struggle,” which, though not included on his new Mack Avenue album, Convergence, will be included on the album to follow it. It’s rich and beautiful, and his solo demonstrates a careful architecture that flows naturally within bassist Kris Funn and drummer C.V. Dashiell’s funky straight eighths. Wolf lays out while pianist Mark Meadows takes a solo, then returns with a second solo that feints at the written melody but is its own glorious animal.

it’s a performance that would kill up at the Village Vanguard, or across town at Blues Alley or even the Kennedy Center (all of which Wolf has played). It kills here, too-at Westminster Presbyterian Church, a small congregation in Southwest D.C. that hosts local jazz every Friday night. (Wolf is a native of Baltimore and currently lives just outside that city.) But the concerts don’t usually feature a member of the SFJAZZ Collective who’s also a veteran of bands led by Christian McBride, Bobby Watson and Jeremy Pelt, to say nothing of Wolf’s three Mack Avenue albums as a leader.

This is one of the hottest, most in-demand jazz musicians in the country: What’s he doing playing a little neighborhood church with virtually no promotion? “There’s a value system about the music: the importance and value, no matter how big-time you get, of still being connected to the scene and being part of the community,” says bass clarinetist Todd Marcus, another Baltimorean who’s quickly gaining stature in the larger jazz world. “Warren shares that value system. Even though he’s hitting all the top-tier venues and clubs, there’s not that ‘I’m better than you’ vibe that a lot of folks get into.”

Wolf, in fact, would play just about any kind of local D.C. or Baltimore gig … if only he got the calls. “People just assume that I’m never in town, or that I’m gonna charge so much money, so they don’t even bother,” he says with some amusement. “So I tell people all the time, ‘Look, I have to come home. I have a wife and kids.'” (Wolf has a four-week-old daughter, the latest of five children, though three of them live with his first wife in Rhode Island.) “So that’s number one. And number two, a hundred dollars is a hundred dollars!”

But Wolf certainly isn’t hurting for gigs. He’s just come off a month-long tour with SFJAZZ, after which he packed three nights at New York’s Smoke Jazz Club. And if local cats expect him to be expensive, perhaps it’s because Wolf rubs shoulders with the likes of bassist McBride, pianist Brad Mehldau, guitarist John Scofield and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts-the all-star band that accompanies him on Convergence. “I’m not surprised at his success at all,” says saxophonist Bobby Watson, who worked with Wolf for two years in the late 2000s. “I knew at the time that the wider world was gonna get hip to him. He’s just a consummate musician, solid from the ground up. Great ears; very melodic player; technique is great. He’s a real virtuoso.”

His virtuosity, in fact, encompasses multiple instruments. The vibraphone is his primary ax, but Wolf is equally proficient on marimba, piano and drums. Now 36, he’s been playing all of them since he was 3, and on all of them he had the same teacher: his father, Warren Sr., a high school history teacher who dabbled in jazz on nights and weekends.

Wolf remembers being a typical inner-city kid, playing with his friends in the alleys of Edmondson Village, a rough neighborhood on Baltimore’s West Side. But music was a daily obligation, with 90 minutes of practice nightly after school and more on weekends. Saturday afternoons meant lessons at the Peabody Institute with Leo LePage, a percussionist in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. At home it was jazz, pop and R&B; at Peabody, he mostly studied the classical repertoire, pieces for piano or violin that had been transposed for marimba. (That training asserts itself on the last track of Convergence, an unaccompanied medley of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and Frédéric Chopin’s “Minute Waltz.”)

At 13 he got accepted to the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he immersed himself in classical studies. By graduation, though, he’d rejected a classical music career. “I’d had to do a lot of reading, had to memorize all the music, just a lot of preparation,” he says. “But I liked the feeling of jazz, because I was totally free to improvise.”

In fact, he’d already been gigging professionally as a jazz musician, a fact he took with him to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, for better and for worse. “He’s grown out of it, [but] I remember him coming in and dropping names. ‘Yeah, I’ve played with Antonio Hart, and Cyrus Chestnut,’ basically everybody that’s from Baltimore,” says trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, who was a senior at Berklee when Wolf was a freshman. “But then we actually heard him play, and it was amazing. He’s one of the few people who, when we first met and he was bragging, he actually held up his end of the bargain!” Studying with Dave Samuels, Wolf was an immediate standout, and would continue to be so through his graduation in 2001.

Wolf remained in Boston for a few years, working locally with trumpeter Jason Palmer, particularly at the venerable jazz club Wally’s Café, eventually returning to Berklee as a professor. While he became a member of Pelt’s New York-based band Creation, he was never fully a member of the New York jazz scene. But doors opened anyway.

In 2003, Berklee invited drummer Lewis Nash to perform a concert and master class, and Wolf was asked to accompany him. “After we finished, Lewis comes up to me and says, ‘Man, you sound great! Why don’t you give me your number?’ So I gave him my number, and you know, that was it. So I thought.

“But a couple weeks later I was sitting at home and I get a call. ‘Hey man, what’s happening? This is Tim Warfield, I got your number from Lewis Nash.'” Saxophonist Warfield invited Wolf to join him for four nights in St. Louis.

This was the beginning of a pattern that would recur over the next decade. “Went home, and back to doing my wedding gigs and teaching,” Wolf recalls. “A week later I get another phone call, and this time it’s from the late, great Mulgrew Miller. He says, ‘Hey, man, I got your number from Lewis Nash. I’d like to know if you want to sub for my group Wingspan! We’re doing a two-week tour of Japan.'” Then came drummer Adonis Rose, who invited Wolf to a Criss Cross recording session (2004’s On the Verge); next, vocalist Rachael Price-now the lead singer of Lake Street Dive-asked Wolf on tour as her pianist, a gig that lasted five years. Once again he returned home, by this time Baltimore, where a D.C. gig with bassist Curtis Lundy led to a call from Lundy’s best friend of 40 years, Kansas City alto legend Bobby Watson.”Curtis, he was raving about him,” Watson recalls. “‘Man, this cat, I’m telling you, he’s a beast!'” Watson hired Wolf, unheard, to record his 2007 album, From the Heart, and was impressed enough to hire him as vibraphonist and pianist for his Live and Learn Band, which spent two years touring Europe. Watson saw a bright future for his new protégé: “He’d get a little discouraged-in the early parts of people’s careers, that can happen, because the gigs aren’t coming in like you want-and I’d just tell him, ‘Warren, man, you’re just too gifted not to be successful. Your time is comin’!'”

Indeed it was, and not long after the Watson tour ended. “Again, same old thing,” Wolf says. “Sitting at home one day, I get a call from a woman who says, ‘Hello, Mr. Wolf, I’m calling from the offices of Christian McBride. Christian would like to know if you’d like to perform with him for one week at the Village Vanguard.’ I was like, this has gotta be a prank call!” It wasn’t. McBride was disbanding his funk project and returning to straight-ahead acoustic jazz. The band’s premiere at the Vanguard was so acclaimed that McBride made it his new working group, Inside Straight. Soon came the Monterey Jazz Festival, then the international festival circuit (with time built in to record the first Inside Straight album, 2009’s Kind of Brown.)

It was Wolf’s breakthrough. “We just went everywhere, did everything,” Wolf says. “I tried to play my ass off as much as I could so promoters would recognize me, and I thank Christian for a lot of the exposure that I have now.” It worked all too well. Hailed as an exciting new discovery on vibes, Wolf soon became too busy to commit to Inside Straight. McBride put the band on indefinite hiatus.

McBride was signed to Detroit-based Mack Avenue Records, which had already noticed Wolf through his work with another of its artists, alto saxophonist Tia Fuller. (He appears on her 2009 release, Decisive Steps.) Inside Straight confirmed his promise, and Mack Avenue soon signed Wolf to record for them as a leader. Warren Wolf, featuring McBride, Pelt, saxophonist Tim Green, pianist Peter Martin and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, was released to considerable acclaim. (Several critics even cited it as the best debut album of 2011.) Wolfgang, the follow-up released in 2013, which used two different quartets (as well as a duo of Wolf and pianist Aaron Diehl), was similarly lauded.

That same year, Wolf debuted with the SFJAZZ Collective, replacing Stefon Harris. Then celebrating its 10th anniversary, the San Francisco-based band was performing a retrospective program-daunting for a newcomer. But Wolf gelled very quickly. “It takes a very specific kind of personality to be able to work in a band like this,” says SFJAZZ alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón. “And Warren has the perfect personality for it. He’s an amazing team player, making sure that everybody gets the spotlight, and he shines whenever the spotlight is on him.”

In its regular seasons, the Collective does a twofold program: a tribute to a musical great, featuring new arrangements of that artist’s repertoire, and original compositions by the band members. SFJAZZ has thus given Wolf’s writing an important new platform. “His arranging and composing bring great contrast and balance,” says tenor saxophonist David Sánchez. “I can hear the folk essence of jazz, which nowadays is often [an afterthought].”

Wolf is a deeply melodic soloist, but his compositions don’t spring from what he improvises; writing, he says, is a separate process. “I don’t really hear jazz that way, when it comes to writing it,” he says. “I actually need some time alone-when I write, I need to have a room of total silence. And I don’t write from the vibes; I either write from the drums or the piano. And I ask the question, ‘What would I like if I was a regular person and I was listening to any artist onstage?’ And I’ll take an artist, someone like Cécile McLorin Salvant, and I’ll imagine her up on a stage just singing some unknown song that I’ve never heard of, and I’ll jot it down. That’s how it starts.”

Convergence is only about half original compositions, Wolf’s lowest ratio yet on an album; he chose the material to showcase the skills of his sidemen. Nonetheless, his writing on the record is easily his most confident yet, with melodies informed by pop and R&B and fleshed out with rich jazz harmony. “This is all a lead-up to the next record, because eventually I’m gonna try to do a record like D’Angelo and Prince,” Wolf says. “I’m just gonna play and write everything.”

Meanwhile, back at the church, Wolf introduces a luxuriant vocalist, Irene Jalenti, and moves into accompaniment for “The Nearness of You.” He’s in remarkably sensitive form, playing only light-colored vibraphone fills in the spaces Jalenti leaves. But a moment later, he announces the set’s closing number, “In the Heat of the Night”-the title alone gets a shout of pleasure from the audience-and he’s suddenly as intense as ever. The tune is a bluesy waltz, with a sly little hop in its groove. When Wolf solos he effortlessly promotes the slyness to sexiness, which comes in wave after blues wave. “Shoo!” says the crowd, and “That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!”

Wolf’s demand is only increasing. Over Memorial Day weekend, he was a headliner at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. This fall, he begins teaching at Temple University in Philadelphia, and in September 2017 he’ll take on an additional position at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. “They’re starting a brand-new jazz program and [the SFJAZZ Collective] are the faculty,” he explains. “So I gotta figure out how this is gonna work, going cross-country and then at the same time maintaining duties at Temple.”

Elite universities, hallowed jazz institutions, little neighborhood churches: Wolf loves the music, plain and simple. He’ll play anywhere that the playing is good. And, it must be said, anywhere he can really connect with an audience. “Warren’s a believer that you’re not just playing for other musicians, or super jazz aficionados,” Todd Marcus says. “He wants to see this music connecting with everyday folks. I think that his playing has got tremendous heart and soul, and that comes through.”

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Originally Published