Michael Wolff

Joe's Strut

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Michael Wolff's recordings as a leader have been all over the place through the years, but he's always made his most potent statements while keeping things focused and simple. Joe's Strut manages to straddle a line between honoring that simplicity and flirting with an ambition to transcend it -- it's an all-acoustic effort, mostly straight-ahead, but pianist Wolff and company toss in just enough curveballs to keep things lively and edgy. Working with two configurations -- a trio featuring Chip Jackson on bass and Victor Jones on drums, and a quintet that adds alto saxophonist Steve Wilson and tenor saxist Ian Young to that lineup -- Wolff dedicates the album to the late keyboardist Joe Zawinul (referenced by the title track) and covers his "74 Miles Away" as the album's final track. But Zawinul's influence on the album doesn't turn up in a direct musical sense so much as it's reflected in an adventurous, at times sly spirit that permeates the record. There are moments when that zeal nearly gets the better of Wolff. "Harbour Island," the opening track, finds Wolff, a master of harmonics with an assured quick-mindedness, full of surprises, tossing around choppy discordant post-bop chords like confetti and alternately unreeling no-nonsense bluesy flurries, the saxes and rhythm section maintaining a solid soulful block as he goes on his merry way. If at times it seems as though the fills are random and deliberate, it evens out in the end when the quintet brings it all home single-mindedly. Likewise, on "Freedom," another Wolff original that utilizes the full band, the pianist goes at first for a deeper, darker sound, then shifts the mood to one more swinging and loose. Just when Wolff and the saxophonists appear close to losing their grip, approaching gratuitousness, they always manage to compensate quickly for any overextensions and sync up again. The track builds to a grandeur midway, when tenorist Young comes to the rescue with a bold solo, against which Wolff attacks with a barrage of angular chords. Of the covers, Harold Arlen's "Come Rain or Come Shine" is a particular gem, a whispery ballad in which empty space counts as much as the blowing. And Frank Loesser's "If I Were a Bell" is almost giddy, a stroll in the park. Rolling along with a buoyant swing, Wolff carries on a one-man conversation between his high and low keys before inviting bassist Jackson into the chat. Jackson and Jones pitch in with brief solos, Wolff wanders off momentarily into a corner, but ultimately it all falls back into place. A positive word must also be given to altoist Wilson, whose tone is pristine and whose phrasing choices are ever on the mark -- his solos and accompaniment add multi-colors to this recording, and Wolff was wise to bring him along. These days Michael Wolff may have more of a public profile as the dad on Nickelodeon's tweens-geared TV series The Naked Brothers Band, which stars his two sons, Nat and Alex. The elder Wolff plays an accordionist on the program, and always seems to be having lots of fun doing so. It's good to hear him having as much fun here, doing what he does best.

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