Blindfold Test: Warren Wolf

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Vibraphonist Warren Wolf’s most recent leader date is Reincarnation (Mack Avenue).

(Photo: Roy Cox)

A classically trained musician who can play several instruments—including vibraphone, marimba, piano and drums—Warren Wolf has won acclaim as an accompanist and bandleader. He has toured with Christian McBride, Bobby Watson and Tia Fuller, and he currently is a member of the SFJAZZ Collective. His latest leader album, Reincarnation (Mack Avenue), mixes jazz with r&b influences. For this Blindfold Test, Wolf commented on the music via Zoom from his home in Baltimore.

Lionel Hampton

“Blue Moon” (Silver Vibes, Columbia, 1960) Hampton, vibraphone, xylophone, celeste; Tommy Flanagan, piano; George Duvivier, bass; Elvin Jones, drums.

I’m going to assume that’s Lionel Hampton. It was throwing me off for a minute, because I’m not used to Lionel playing anything outside of the key. I’m used to hearing him pretty much just swing out really hard over nice bop changes.

When the recording first started, I thought that’s definitely Lionel because of the vibrato in the vibraphone, and the way that he phrases. He has a particular sound—the mallets he uses to strike the instrument. But then, the thing that threw me off is the recording. I was like, “Wait a minute, this sounds a little bit ... newer.” Nice effect, Lionel on the xylophone [at the end]. I’ve never heard him play the xylophone.

Renee Rosnes

“Lucy From Afar” (Written In The Rocks, Smoke Sessions, 2016) Rosnes, piano; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Peter Washington, bass; Bill Stewart, drums.

I have no idea who that is. I like the song, especially when it went to the vibes and the piano, just duo. It went to this sort of classical-like feeling, but there was a lot of interplay between the two.

[after] If that was Renee Rosnes, it can’t be Steve Nelson. It is? I never would have guessed that was Steve Nelson. Steve typically uses harder mallets. There are times when I’ve heard Steve play when he completely wails on the instrument, and I mean that as a good thing.

Steps Ahead

“Northern Cross” (Steps Ahead, Elektra, 1983) Michael Brecker, tenor saxophone; Mike Mainieri, vibraphone; Eliane Elias, piano; Eddie Gómez, bass; Peter Erskine, drums.

I know that’s Michael Brecker. Was it Mike Mainieri? OK, I was like, “Man, there’s a lot of reverb on this.” So, that’s Steps Ahead. It’s just nice to hear something in a major key. Mike was really going for it. He is one of the true masters of the instrument. I know he likes to do a lot of electronics in his music as well.

Joel Ross

“Ill Relations” (KingMaker, Blue Note, 2019) Ross, vibraphone; Immanuel Wilkins, alto saxophone; Jeremy Corren, piano; Benjamin Tiberio, bass; Jeremy Dutton, drums.

That is Mr. Good Vibes, Joel Ross. He’s my man, one of the new young voices of the vibes. He’s a great player. The thing about Joel—which he does on this recording—he likes to stretch outside the original changes, even if it’s his own composition. He’ll play ’em for a little bit, but he’s always trying to figure out how to raise the bar musically and see what else he can do to elevate the band.

He called me a while ago; he was like, “Dude, I need some new sticks.” He couldn’t find a good pair of sticks that would last. Joel is a really tiny dude. Joel weighs like, 45 pounds [laughs]. But he plays with so much force. When he really starts to get into it, he starts moving his body around, he starts singing some of the tune. He’s just trying to elevate anybody who’s around him, to make music, which is great.

Stefon Harris, he’s been such a great influence on Joel. And many others, but I think Stefon Harris has been his dude. That’s a great record.

George Duke

“That’s What She Said” (I Love The Blues, She Heard My Cry, MPS, 1975) Duke, keyboards; John Wittenberg, violin; Daryl Stuermer, guitar; Byron Miller, electric bass; Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, drums; Airto Moreira, percussion; Emil Richards, marimba.

I wasn’t too crazy about the track. Don’t get me wrong—I like fusion—but it just felt like the time was a little off for me. Typically, for my ears only, when I listen to jazz-fusion, I want to hear some type of vamp, over maybe four chords or something like that, but they were moving around a lot. I can respect it. But it wasn’t my thing.

[after] I’ve never heard of Emil Richards. I give him tons of credit for playing that melody. It was a lot of runs; typically, a lot of mallet players don’t play stuff like that.

Brad Mehldau

“Wave/Mother Nature’s Son” (Largo, Nonesuch, 2002) Mehldau, vibraphone; Darek “Oles” Oleszkiewicz, bass; Matt Chamberlain, drums; Jon Brion, guitar synthesizer, guitar treatments, percussion; Victor Indrizzo, drums, percussion; Justin Meldal-Johnsen, bass guitar, programmer.

I liked that. My only negative thing to say about that would be: Why only play the melody to “Wave,” and that was it? It’s a pretty melody, and he or she was playing it broken up over the time.

I would love to hear the rest of the record before I make this next statement: I cannot tell if this person has a strong vocabulary of improvisation. Part of me wants to say yes, because when it got to the section with the strings, it was moving into this classical-type harmony, and the vibraphonist was definitely playing [the harmony]. But the times when the strings were not being played, the vibraphone was demonstrating very basic improv. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but he was just kinda jamming over one note. He or she did not really spell chords a lot.

I have no idea who that was. [after] OK. I know that Brad has tons of harmony. That’s why I said earlier I would love to listen to the rest of [the album]. I recorded with Brad; he was on my record [Convergence].

Actually, you telling me it’s Brad is kinda cool, because there was one part when we got to that classical section—there’s a particular line that Brad plays that a lot of piano players and saxophone players play. Robert Glasper does it, my buddy from Baltimore Tim Green does it, Aaron Parks does it. There’s one particular line that he’s known for, and when he does it, he’ll play it in time, but then he’ll slow it down 5 or 10 knots. I would have said, “OK, this vibes player listens to Brad Mehldau,” but I would never think, “That’s Brad Mehldau” [laughs]. DB

The “Blindfold Test” is a listening test that challenges the featured artist to discuss and identify the music and musicians who performed on selected recordings. The artist is then asked to rate each tune using a 5-star system. No information is given to the artist prior to the test.

This story originally was published in the September 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.