Live at Vitellos
Admittedly, not sure why this album, Live at Vitellos, recorded in 2011, is just coming out now but we certainly welcome it. Award-winning pianist Michael Wolff, known for an impressive and eclectic career that has spanned five decades, and stints with Cannonball Adderley and Cal Tjader early in his career, brings us this live recording from the iconic Los Angeles jazz club. On Wolff’s 20th outing as a leader, the multifaceted and lyrical trumpeter Mark Isham, whose beginnings trace to labels such as ECM and Windham Hill and artists as diverse as Pharoah Sanders and Van Morrison before his storied film scoring career, is the featured voice amongst the stalwart rhythm section of long-time Wolff collaborators bassist John B. Williams and drummer Mike Clark.
Though Wolff and Isham’s friendship formed in the ‘70’s, this stint at Vitello’s marks their first official collaboration. It’s evident from the first note of Live at Vitellos that these players have a shared history; Clark and Wolff bonded during the 1970’s when they were touring with Cannonball Adderley and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, respectively. Since then, they’ve gone on to perform together in a variety of settings, live and recorded, and notably in Wolff’s jazz-world band Impure Thoughts. Similarly, Wolff and Williams’ relationship dates to the same period, and they too have performed together often over the years – including in the Arsenio Hall Band, of which Wolff was famously the Musical Director of from 1989 through 1994. To help bring his vision to life, Wolff brought in the illustrious producer and composer Nic. tenBroek, whose credits include Nancy Wilson, Bobby McFerrin and Les McCann, among others, as well as the great Oscar-nominated sound engineer Dan Wallin.
The album features four Wolff originals, two classic compositions by Wayne Shorter and another co-written by Clark and saxophonist Jed Levy. Interestingly, Wolff kicks off with “Ballad Noir”, a moody original that was written for The Tic Code (2000), a Gary Winick-directed film loosely based on Wolff’s life as a jazz pianist with Tourettes syndrome. This emotive opener sets the tone, giving the proceedings a noir overtone through Isham’s sensuous sound, and melodic approach to soloing. The energetic “Lagniappe” (named for the 13th treat of a baker’s dozen) comes next, and particularly showcases the fiery rhythm section with a burning solo from Clark. “The harmonic structure is all based on one pedal tone and allows us to change the color on a dime. We all listened to each other and let the music and spirit of the moment guide us,” said Wolff.
“Fall”, one of Wolff’s favorite Wayne Shorter compositions, comes next followed by the bluesy “Falling Down”, which features Isham and Wolff dancing over Williams’ rooted, funky bass line while Clark lays down one of his signature beats. Wolff and Isham’s experience in composing for film shines on “The Conversation”, a poignant ballad that would feel perfectly at home accompanying the silver screen. Another Shorter tune comes next – the jazz staple and title of one of Miles Davis’ iconic albums, “Nefertiti”. While all four musicians are intimately familiar with this piece, and have performed it in various settings, this rendition rang special to Wolff, as the band had an opportunity to stretch, and breathe together here as a cohesive unit. The funky and fun “Loft Funk”, contributed by Clark, closes out the set on a high note.
In the album liner notes, producer Nic. tenBroek reflects on the undeniable artistry displayed by these four musical titans, and the magic they created on two nights in Los Angeles a decade ago. “… Simply putting 4 masters of the craft together on stage… and engaging a GRAMMY Award-winning recording engineer to capture it all over 2 musical nights of live performance was all that was required,” adding, “…the listener is included in improvisational music at its finest.”
This is most a brooding date as one might expect from the film scoring pair of Wolff and Isham; and a different, more restrained and sensitive date for the fiery drummer Clark, who is usually driving hard in hard bop settings. The term “warm” is as good a descriptor as any and the listener clearly hears the strong interplay in their improvisational solos and exchanges.
- Jim Hynes