As with any solo piano recording, Zenith is all about pure expression. Sans accompaniment, with no other minds steering the direction or feeding off of him, Michael Wolff, on his first-ever solo outing, ably covers all of the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic bases, creating a self-contained world within each piece.
Wolff’s résumé stretches back more than four decades, as accompanist, collaborator and leader in dizzyingly diverse situations, and on Zenith, co-produced by Wolff and NewK (John Newcott), he plays to the strengths he’s accumulated. On his covers—Coltrane and Bird, a few songbook standards, a number from contemporary singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens—and his original material, he is articulate and broadminded, and alternately contemplative, edgy and playful.
“The Doc,” an original, is the lead track. At its core steeped in New Orleans tradition, it veers quasi-classical midway through, finds its way back to Congo Square and trips off into brief meditative flashes before it takes its leave. Wolff moves seamlessly from there to a highly customized “Giant Steps,” dashing off intricate runs that circle Trane’s melody even as they suggest he may leave it behind altogether.
“Madimba/St. Thomas,” welding a Wolff original to the Sonny Rollins classic, finds the pianist taking a particularly fleet-fingered approach, while “Cry Me a River” is the opposite in tone, all soft touches and rounded edges. Not bad for a “debut.”