Songs in the Key of Life

Michael Wolff is a jack of all trades, and an undeniable master of one. Over the past three decades he's played many different roles in the entertainment world: actor, conductor, singer, producer, even standup comedian. But he always returns to his one true love — jazz piano.

"I think that ultimately I always knew I was a jazz musician, but I liked all these other things, so they informed my art in a really good way," muses the 53-year-old, in a recent phone interview from his home in New York City. "I'm always thinking about music, so I always connect what I'm doing to the music."

Wolff's career took off in 1975, as a pianist for jazz giant Cannonball Adderly. Since then he has worked with, among others, Sonny Rollins and the late Warren Zevon. He's also written and conducted music for Nancy Wilson. The pianist may be best known — at least among late-night TV fans — for his five-year gig as bandleader on the Arsenio Hall Show, which earned him a hefty paycheck in addition to boosting his music cred.

Wolff maintains a lower profile these days, but keeps himself busy nonetheless. Most recently, he's been touring in support of his new release, Love and Destruction. The album is a hybrid of jazz and rock, and reflects Wolff's eclectic tastes, with covers of songs by Radiohead, Leonard Cohen, Beck, the Rolling Stones, and his old collaborator, Warren Zevon.

"If you look back on how many jazz artists got started, how they got known, and how they really created an audience for jazz, you'll notice they improvised and performed hit songs of the day," Wolff notes. "So my concept was really that tradition. I did find that a lot of [young] people, especially about Radiohead, would say, öWow, now I understand jazz, because you're doing it to something that I already know.'"

Indeed, the disc's thirteen songs (including five originals) are marked with Wolff's trickling key strokes and upbeat percussion. While his familiar smooth jazz sound resounds throughout the album, Wolff ventures into new territory by singing on every track. His husky voice descends to a hushed whisper on "Hallelujah," then booms on "Underwater."

The album is further invigorated by a Middle Eastern flair, compliments of Badal Roy, the first tabla player to popularize the Indian instrument in America. Wolff began to dabble in world music eight years ago, when he formed his backing band, Impure Thoughts, after hearing an Ethiopian group that mixed African and Indian sounds. It is no surprise, then, that the voices of the African Children's Choir can be heard on the first track, "Tell Me."

"I had always loved music from all over. When I was in college I was studying this Pygmy music from the forest in Africa, and I was studying Hungarian folk songs. I figure you have the obligation to be sort of an ethnomusicologist nowadays because you can hear music from everywhere; just go buy it on CD," Wolff says.

Despite the vocals and different genres incorporated into Love and Destruction, it is not a sudden departure from Wolff's traditional jazz roots. It's more of an inevitable evolution. As the title suggests, the album is a work of polarities, a juxtaposition of old and new, improvised and rehearsed, fast and slow. The original "Falling in Love" is a snappy jazz number that is followed by an ethereal and loungy cover of Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place." Elsewhere, blues and straight-ahead rock make their way into the mix.

"To me, I just have an active mind and imagination and I feel like I have to try new things," Wolff says. "My hero is Miles Davis because he kept changing. I always like to go back and play jazz but I like to keep trying new things."

One of the new things Wolff is taking on is the The Naked Brothers Band project — a Nickelodeon show based on the lives of (and starring) his two real-life sons, Alex and Nat. The program, which documents the lives of two preteen rockers, comes off like a hybrid of Spinal Tap and the Little Rascals. Wolff produces the show, plays the part of the goofy father, and composes some of the music as well.

Just as he has bestowed the gift of music to his sons, Wolff's father introduced him to music at an early age as well. Aside from simply sharing his love of jazz and blues, the elder Wolff brought music into his son's life to help him deal with Tourette's syndrome — a disorder which causes physical and verbal tics, including, in some cases, a compulsion to mutter profanities.

Wolff refuses to see his condition as a burden; just the opposite.

"I don't think it's been any obstacle to me at all as a musician. I don't know what it would be like to not have Tourette's," Wolff says. "I think there's something about that liberation that's in the mind, the lack of inhibition at times, that can be an advantage. But I don't really see it as having a huge effect, that I can tell, except for maybe in my approach to feel free and improvise and be impulsive if I feel like it. But there are tons of improvisers that are that way that don't have Tourette's. So I never feel like it had a big impact on me that way."

As for the future, Wolff is working on a straight-ahead jazz album and a second project with vocals. With such an accomplished career, retirement would not be out of the question, yet Wolff's appetite for experimentation shows no signs of waning.

"A friend of mine said, 'Don't let Mike go to a boxing match or he'll start trying to be a fighter.' I just see things that I like and I get this thing in me where I have to do it. I guess I have ADD of the career. It's just my personality."

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Alexandra Quiñones