Warren Wolf: Beyond Vibes


​“This album is every little thing about Warren Wolf that I’ve been trying to do for almost 40 years,” says Wolf of Chano Pozo: Origins.

(Photo: Roy Cox)

Warren Wolf is determined to do it all. More than 20 years into his career as a vibraphonist, drummer and composer, the Baltimore-based musician shares the true breadth of his musical talent.

“I’m releasing my 10th album as a bandleader, and I had to make something special,” he says. “I decided to showcase myself: to write and play all the parts and let everyone know who Warren Wolf really is. Since I never wanted to be known as just a vibraphone player.”

Starting his career as a classically trained percussionist at the prestigious Peabody Preperatory at Johns Hopkins University, Wolf went on to study under Spyro Gyra vibraphonist Dave Samuels at Berklee College of Music and has since played with the likes of Christian McBride, Karriem Riggins and the SFJAZZ Collective. As a bandleader, his records have spanned from the R&B influences of 2020’s Reincarnation to the hard-swinging intricacies of 2011’s Warren Wolf and the breezy West Coast melodies of 2016’s Convergence. Throughout, Wolf’s vibraphone has been a steady, soulful presence, but it took the pandemic in 2020 to set him on a different path.

“Once everything was canceled and we had to stay home, I went onto YouTube and began practicing along to a bunch of jazz standards,” he says, over a video call from his home. “I’ve played these songs so many times though, I knew them inside out, and I realized I needed something new to keep me fresh.”

Wolf decided to put together a home recording setup and began laying down all of the parts to songs like Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty” and George Shearing’s “Conception” through MIDI keyboard and Logic production software. He then left gaps for solos to be filled remotely by friends — including vibraphonist Joe Lock and saxophonist Walter Smith III.

“It sounded so good, it soon became about more than just practice,” he says. “My friend, the drummer Lee Pearson, warned me that since I play lots of instruments, it would get addictive. To date, I’ve made around 160 tracks of everything from standards to new compositions, since I’m always looking for something different.”

As the world began to reopen, Wolf felt creatively freed thanks to his production and self-recording knowledge. He also found himself as an independent artist once more, since his five-album deal with Mack Avenue had ended after the release of 2020’s Christmas Vibes. With the path ahead cleared, it seemed like the natural option to continue with his solo experimentation to produce an album of original music, Chano Pozo: Origins.

Across the album’s nine tracks, Wolf riffs on gospel Hammond organ during the meditative “Sunday Morning,” frantically soloing on piano during the hard-swinging “Havoc” and even singing through talkbox on the D’Angelo cover “Lady.” Aside from horns and guest vocals from Allison Bordlemay, Chano Pozo is all Wolf improvising and competing with himself to produce a seamless blend of self-sampling.

“This album is every little thing about Warren Wolf that I’ve been trying to do for almost 40 years,” he says with a smile. “You’re hearing the piano, drums, bass and composition — even my singing. It’s the full spectrum of my musical upbringing, played exactly as I want it to be.”

That upbringing was largely shaped by Wolf’s father, Warren Wolf Sr., who worked as a history teacher by day but was a percussionist and music fanatic by night, often jamming and playing records by the likes of Roy Ayers and The Temptations in the Wolf family basement until the early hours. It was there, as a 3-year-old, that junior Wolf became entranced by the vibraphone, clambering up a chair to have a go at hitting its resonant surfaces. Spotting his interest, Wolf’s father soon began giving him music lessons, along with the nickname Chano Pozo.

“I had no idea what that name meant as a kid — it was just something that everyone called me,” Wolf says. “Later, I found out he was a percussionist who played with Dizzy Gillespie. Perhaps my father saw that same musical spirit in me, but I never got the chance to ask him why he called me that in the first place.”

In 2022, Wolf’s father passed away and Chano Pozo plays as a tribute to his memory, as well as an exorcism of Wolf’s musical roots, channelling his childhood alter ego to traverse everything from ’70s fusion to ’90s G-funk, sensual soul and jazz melody. “I didn’t grow up in a jazz household. I just came from a music household,” Wolf says. “My dad played a lot of Motown and classical, and then I have two older sisters who played a bunch of ’80s hip-hop. By 5, I was at Peabody Prep, and at 6, I had my first tour with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, when I thought I was going to be a classical musician. By 17, though, I was fully into jazz.”

With that jazz interest sparked by a lesson spent improvising over Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy,” Wolf was soon accepted into Berklee and wound up with a weekly residency at Boston’s renowned Wally’s Cafe. There he developed an impressive aptitude for marathon sets, playing for three hours or more with the likes of classmates Kendrick Scott, Walter Smith III and Avishai Cohen. “It was just magical because we encouraged each other to write, and it gave me such confidence,” he says. “The club owners gave us complete control to do what we wanted and that ethos of freedom has still stayed with me today.”

Indeed, with tentative plans to put out a “metal jazz” record with Mars Volta drummer Thomas Pridgeon in the cards as well as the possibility of another solo record — writing, recording and producing each composition — Wolf’s drive for freewheeling creativity continues.

“I just want to get our music heard by as many people as possible,” Wolf says. “From taking listeners back to my origins to working out the improvised music of the future — it’s all there to be played.” DB

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December 2023
Pharoah Sanders
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