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Published: 2005/02/13
by Joe Urtz

Michael Wolff & Impure Thoughts, Scullers Jazz Club, Cambridge, MA- 2/8

The meager turnout at Scullers Jazz Club had to be somewhat disappointing to Michael Wolff and Impure Thoughts, but they didn't let on. Sad to say, but the "crowd" of about 25 would have been even smaller, had our party of four not been lured in by an offer of free tickets. Well, heck… at least we showed up and bought some drinks, along with the band's latest release… and became ardent new fans along the way. No one in our party was at all familiar with this band, nor with its acclaimed pianist/composer leader. But Wolff and his three telepathic sidemen quickly remedied that, filling the room with a warm, intoxicating blend of straight-ahead jazz and tabla-stoked world rhythms.

The laid-back and genial Wolff looked hiply professorial in a long tan coat and shaggy hair. Stationed to the front-left of the stage, Wolff performed mainly on acoustic piano, but switched regularly to an adjacent Fender Rhodes electric piano. Positioned directly across from Wolff at the front was Indian tabla virtuoso, Badal Roy. His spirited barehand thumping was something to behold throughout the show. Roy, who has recorded with Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and John McLaughlin, created hypnotic rhythmic patterns that added an exotic eastern-style beat texture to the band’s arrangements. Roy’s lovely percussive grooves were further fueled by Mike Clark’s sharp drumming. The quartet was rounded (and grounded) by John B. Williams on electric upright bass. Wolff sang Williams’s praises for being the "heartbeat" of the band, the player who’d always be there to get a song back on track, no matter how far afield some promising detour may have taken everyone.

At the show’s outset, the audience was a bit tentative. First songs in front of a small crowd can naturally put pressure on the musicians, but can also impact the audience. It felt like our crowd was just getting a feel for the band’s music when the first number abruptly ended. Horror of horrors, the room totally missed its cue! No applause or other sounds of encouragement were offered up to the band, just a brief moment of uncomfortable silence. Ouch. But let me explain, we’d just been caught momentarily off-guard, that’s all. Mercifully, the band didn’t pack up and bid us all goodnight. Wolff simply moved on to the next number on the set list, for which we were all grateful, as we vowed to do better the next time around.

That turned out to be an easy promise to keep. The night’s music was just so engaging and uplifting that the audience couldn’t help but break into heartfelt applause at the many joyous moments in the generous 90-minute set. Despite my unfamiliarity with the band’s output, I was easily swept along by the captivating currents. An early upbeat number that really seemed to loosen things up incorporated a funky New Orleans style backbeat, perfect mood music for this Mardi Gras evening. A bit later, the opening notes to John Coltrane’s "A Love Supreme" definitely got everyone’s attention. Wolff and his mates served up a knockout, super-condensed, three-minute (!) interpretation of this album-length classic. It ended way too soon, of course, but it also sounded fantastic and somehow fully-realized.

Wolff had an easy stage presence throughout, occasionally offering up amusing or informative introductions to songs. For one number based on Indian tabla beats — "Rupak," I believe — a song that would require a lengthy improvisational workout by Roy to get things started, Wolff slyly quipped: "And now Badal Roy will play with himself." Bada-bing!

Mixing things up nicely, Wolff later offered up the night’s only vocal effort, a disarming, softly-pitched stab at the Diana Ross and The Supremes chestnut, "Stop! In the Name of Love," which Wolff dedicated to drummer Clark, who apparently is one of Ms. Ross’s biggest fans. It was obvious Wollf and his bandmates have established a close rapport, both musical and otherwise. Tempos were shifted and solos exchanged with the merest shift of a glance. The band’s brand name, Impure Thoughts, apparently reflects their collective embrace of musical free-thinking and experimentation. Songs have intricate structures, but are kept open to those precious in-the-moment improvisations, keeping the musical dynamics fresh and lively.

While Wolff and his mates may not be too well known outside of jazz circles, lovers of group interplay and spirited jamming will surely enjoy checking them out. Their performance at Scullers consisted of material drawn mainly from their new album, Dangerous Visions. Selections from their previous release, Intoxicate, were also represented. Short of catching this combo in action immediately, these discs would be the place to start. Dangerous Visions is a studio recording, but the session has a "live" feel, thanks to a small audience that was brought in to fuel the improv vibe.

That approach was apparently inspired by Cannonball Adderley, who preferred recording that way, even to the extent of catering the sessions and providing an open bar for his guests. And it was the legendary Adderley who helped launch Wolff’s career by hiring him in 1975 to join what would be Adderley’s final band. Wolff’s jazz career has steadily blossomed since then. You may have even seen him regularly on late-night TV some years ago, as Wolff spent five pretty high-profile years (1989-94) as the bandleader and musical director of the popular Arsenio Hall Show.

But the future is now and Michael Wolff & Impure Thoughts are making the most of it. Their full-hearted showing in front of a meager but appreciative crowd epitomizes what’s very best about the live music experience. Size doesn’t matter when you’re playing around, it’s all about the heart. Thanks, guys, for coming through with such a fine performance on a quiet Tuesday night in Boston.

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