Warren Wolf Explores Early, Personal Influences To Chart a Path Forward

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Vibraphonist Warren Wolf wanted to do “something completely different” for his Mack Avenue album, Reincarnation.

(Photo: Steven Parke)

You then went on to Berklee College of Music and studied with the late vibraphonist Dave Samuels. What was the most impactful thing he taught you?

Dave just wanted me to play differently. One of my first lessons, he said, “You sound great, but you’re not saying anything. You’re pretty much just playing what Milt Jackson or Charlie Parker would play. What do you have to say?”

“For Ma” is dedicated to your mother, who loved Motown. Tell me what it was like writing that song and the impact she had on your career.

So, my mother, Celeste Wolf, she passed away about four years ago. When she retired from her job, she had early retirement and she was trying to figure out, “OK, what am I doing now?” One thing she and my dad did very often is, they’d go down into our rehearsal studio and put on all the tunes from when they were young—lots of Motown—and she wanted to learn how to play piano. In the last two years of her life, she got really good, and I’m not just saying that because I’m her son. She would play along with the recordings of groups like The Four Tops. So, I decided to do this track for her as a party song, something that’s upbeat, and feels good and brings in the Motown sound—particularly the tambourine feel.

That track is just one of several dedicated to your family on Reincarnation—like the song for your kids, “Sebastian And Zoë,” and the song for your wife, “Come Dance And With Me.” What about turning 40 compelled you to give your listeners a more personal look into your life?

Well, I turned 40 in November 2019, and I wanted to do something completely different. With my last three Mack Avenue records and a few other independent records before this, they were pretty much in the straightahead jazz vein. So, I had some friends who would call me and say, “Warren, listen, you’ve been swinging for the past 20 years and it’s not going anywhere. Why don’t you try something else? Nobody can out-swing you. But we all know there’s another side of you that’s always been there; you just haven’t unleashed it yet.”

So, I started thinking to myself—and I was scared. I was like, what about my fans? What if they don’t like it? But my friends would say, “Well forget them. You may lose them, but you will gain some more by creating something simple people can enjoy.”

Overall, Reincarnation is about the things that made you and still continue to mold you. In revisiting the various musical and personal influences of your youth, has it transformed the way you look at jazz?

No, I don’t think it transformed anything. I respect most people and what they’re doing. If anything, I’d like for people to just go ahead and try stuff. But, to be honest, this record is still jazz. I just switched a couple things around. I’m upfront with the vibes, but the one thing you won’t hear is a pile of vibraphone solos. I was trying to go for more of a group sound and music that people can just turn on and say, “OK, this feels good.”

Something that I thought about when I was creating this was, what would my wife think? That was, honestly, the main thing. If I turn this on in the car and we’re on a date, will she really sit there and dissect every solo I have and say, “Wow, that lydian scale you used right there ... .” First of all, she doesn’t know what the hell that is. So, I was concentrating more on sound and feel, like, let’s get these vocals in here, the correct lyrics, let’s make a nice melody and solo a little bit. I wanted to treat it like a live show.

What do you hope people take away from Reincarnation?

I hope they take this product and just sit back and relax. I hope they can say something like, “Wow, we realize Warren Wolf is more than just a jazz musician,” because a lot of us, we’re stuck in this box. I want to be that person that can do everything. I love music in general. I am a musician. DB

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