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Warren Wolf: Leading the Pack

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Winnipeg audiences are in for a treat this February 18 when vibraphonist Warren Wolf takes his place on the stage at the West End Cultural Centre as part of Steve Kirby’s Oceanic Jazz Orchestra. Wolf is one of the leading voices on the vibes, with three recordings as a leader on the Mack Avenue label—Warren Wolf (2011), Wolfgang (2013), and Divergences (2016)—and countless performances and recordings as a sideman, with groups led by Christian McBride, Bobby Watson, Aaron Diehl, Esperanza Spalding, and many others. An accomplished multi-instrumentalist, Wolf has also performed and toured as a pianist and a drummer. These days, he divides his time between his family in Baltimore, his work with the SF JAZZ Collective in San Francisco, and teaching at Temple University in Philadelphia. I caught up with him on his drive home after a term of teaching. ν Charlene Diehl

What got you into the vibes?

My father, Warren Wolf Sr., was a history teacher in Baltimore, but he had a weekend band called the Wolf Pack and he played the vibes. So since I was three, I’ve been playing vibes, drums, and piano—they were the instruments in my house.

The vibraphone is a great instrument to perform on—it’s a pretty sound, and it’s cool to see. Outside of the drum set, most percussion you only get to see in a symphony setting, not up front in a jazz band. It’s not that common an instrument, but there’s a good twenty or thirty vibes players who can play it for real. My favourites? Bobby Hutcherson, who died recently. Milt Jackson. My former teacher at Berklee, Dave Samuels. Then of course the generation ahead of me—Joe Locke, Stefon Harris…

What projects are you working on now?

This is my fourth season with the SF JAZZ Collective, an eight-member band that’s made up of the best musicians in jazz. The SFJC has been together for fourteen years. Vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson was there for the first four years, Stefon Harris was there for six, and then I came in. What the band does each year is pick a composer to focus on—most times it’s somebody in jazz, but sometimes it’s somebody in pop. Last year was Michael Jackson, this year Miles Davis. We each arrange a piece by the composer, and we commit to composing a song of our own in that style. We toured four weeks in California and four weeks in Europe this past fall; we’ll tour the USA in April and May.

Outside the Collective, I’m doing my own band, Wolfpack. We just released Convergences, with Christian McBride on bass, John Scofield on guitar, Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, Brad Mehldau on piano, and me on vibes, marimba, and pianos. It’s been great, but like most musicians, I’m always thinking about the next one. I think we’ll hit the studio in late spring or early summer. This next record will be more people-friendly—not crossover or contemporary, but more accessible.

Will you talk more about that audience question?

Every musician has to be true to themselves, and play what they feel and what they know. I can’t call myself a jazz guy, even though I know the art form now, because I didn’t grow up in the 40s and 50s. To be honest, I wasn’t really around this music until nearly graduating Berklee in 2001. I’m more of a classical musician with hints of R&B and hip hop, then you throw in a mix of jazz, Motown, and some fusion. So that’s what I’m hearing. It takes a while to find your true voice.

When I was a teen, I knew I could play but I had this cocky ego that said I should be a top guy immediately. That just doesn’t happen. I worked for ten years as a sideman, with musicians like Bobby Watson, Rachael Price, Christian McBride, Tia Fuller, and others before I had a chance to step out as a leader. It’s kind of like starting again: who are you now as a solo artist, and what is your contribution? You create a little buzz as a sideman, but you’re not a focal point. You need people to say, “Okay, let’s check out who this person is…”

With this music, we start with the older crowd, then gradually add in the younger audiences. I have three records out—I just gotta keep riding the waves.

Tell us about playing Steve’s music on All Over the Map.

Steve’s music? Challenging and fun are the two words that best describe it. I remember when Steve called me, I had a lot of stuff going on, so I didn’t have time to properly look over the music. When I showed up to the recording session, all I could think was, “Oh shit! This is a lot of notes!” Luckily this is where my classical training comes in—I did seventeen years so my reading chops are pretty good. (I remember one session seeing Steve’s chart and saying, “Hey man, your parts are simple!”) Outside of the challenge, though, the music is lots of fun. Two of my favourites are “Duende’s Dance” and “Dance of the Carapice”—oh, and “Telluride” and another piece where we’re playing in 7, and… Playing all this music is a lot of fun. We did the recording in several sessions, so when I heard everything completed, I was highly impressed.

I couldn’t come to the Jazz Festival gig in June, so I recommended Joel Ross, a young protégé of mine. But I told him not to play the music too well because I want to get back in there! I’m looking forward to playing this music with the whole orchestra when the record drops in February. I’ve been in Winnipeg in February before, so I know what I’m in for…


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