Michael Wolff’s Miraculous Turn


Michael Wolff’s new release, Swirl, is his first leader date in nearly a decade.

(Photo: Chris Drukker)

Michael Wolff’s father once shared with him a psychiatrist’s perspective on music and life: “Everyone who listens to Basie’s band listens to the saxophones and trumpet, but if you want to know what’s really going on, you gotta listen to the bass and drums.”

Fascinated with what’s beneath the surface, Wolff has spent his career uncovering simultaneous truths. And over the years, the pianist has collaborated with Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Nancy Wilson and countless other deep-diving artists. He’s issued a dozen records through the decades, but the release of his live recording, Swirl (Sunnyside), represents a depth of expression that emerged only after he’d traveled “to the brink and back.”

After Wolff was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 2015, doctors offered a grave prognosis, and he slipped into a coma. But in what he refers to as a miraculous turn, a trial medication aided his recovery—along with his persistent will and the realization he had so much more music to share. “I’m more concerned with beauty, and not proving anything as a pianist or a composer,” Wolff said. “So, I try to make sure that everything I play and record has a certain mood.”

The mood Wolff’s trio sets on Swirl is one of undeniable warmth. Interplay among the bandleader, bassist Ben Allison and drummer Allan Mednard reflects deep listening and near-intuitive reactions, helping to bring tremendous color and character to the bandleader’s varied compositions, including “Jenny,” a tribute to his friend afflicted with the same rare cancer, “Tough Ashkenazi,” inspired by a conversation with pianist Fred Hersch, and “Allison,” written for his bandmate Ben.

When Wolff fell ill, Allison often would bring over his bass, and the two would just play. “We really developed this duo language together,” Wolff said. Mednard joined the unit during a 2017 Erroll Garner tribute presented by WBGO, and the trio has been working together ever since.

A deeply personal connection among the three artists, in part, creates the warmth swirling from one track to the next on the new album. Wolff relies on the connection to help him reach that other level of musicianship: “To me, there’s one level that’s sort of what we talk about with harmony and notes and chords and bebop. But then there’s a level where you can go deeper.”

Allison, too, recognizes the immense freedom in playing with openness and trust: “You never know which way the music is going to go, which is exciting. Any musician can take a quick left turn and lose his bandmates in the process. But, the twists and turns this trio takes are always based on musical logic. We don’t always know where we’re going to end up, but when we get to the end, it always feels inevitable—like it was meant to happen that way.”

Along with warmth, destiny might prove to be another, albeit unintended, theme of the new record. But Wolff admits his family has become his primary focus—an enduring force and source of unconditional love. “It sounds a little bit hokey,” he said, “but I just think, at this point, the love and the warmth and the universalness of life and music is all-consuming for me.” DB

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