Hamptons JazzFest: Michael Wolff in Full Recovery - 27 East

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Hamptons JazzFest: Michael Wolff in Full Recovery

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Jazz Pianist Michael Wolff. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Jazz Pianist Michael Wolff. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Jazz pianist Michael Wolff. CHARLES LEVIN

Jazz pianist Michael Wolff. CHARLES LEVIN

Jazz pianist Michael Wolff. CHARLES LEVIN

Jazz pianist Michael Wolff. CHARLES LEVIN

Dan Ouellette on Jun 24, 2024

In his page-turner autobiography, “On That Note: A Memoir of Jazz, Tics, and Survival,” virtuoso pianist Michael Wolff begins his book with the tale of his miraculous cancer survival and his inspirational recovery: “The music did and still saves me … the piano has been my saving grace.”

On his successful road of rejuvenation, Wolff opens the fourth season of the Hamptons JazzFest in solo piano mode at LTV Studios in Wainscott on Monday, July 1, at 6 p.m. He’s in the midst of basking in the success of his conversational best-selling book and preparing to release his joyful, reflective, grooved album “Memoir,” his first fresh recording in four years.

The LTV show serves as a testament to Wolff’s renowned career that included breaking in for two years with Latin jazz ace Cal Tjader, a long-running gig in jazz giant Cannonball Adderley’s band and performing in support of jazz acts such as tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and electric violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. He has also recorded 21 albums. But on another level, the show is an affirmation of his life after his four-year struggle against a rare form of soft-tissue cancer called histiocytic sarcoma that was deemed untreatable. When first diagnosed, he writes in his book, he was told he “had three months to live — at most.”

In a phone conversation with the New York-based Wolff while he was in Paris on a European tour with his stellar trio, he says, “My oncologist saved my life. He figured out how to treat me by giving me a little pill for another cancer. He ended up writing an article for The New England Journal of Medicine saying that what I had is now considered to be a curable disease.”

Wolff’s life has not been an easy ride. His book chronicles his lifelong “nervous tic” struggles with Tourette’s Syndrome where he faced social ordeals to overcome. After his early years of being raised in New Orleans and Memphis, his family moved to Berkeley. There he joined the San Francisco Bay Area jazz scene where race sometimes proved to be an obstacle (a young rising-star white pianist proving his might in an all-Black band oftentimes playing to all-Black audiences). But his passion for pianistic expression eclipsed the setbacks.

In 1974, Wolff left Berkeley and moved to New York to experience the jazz life where his rise to fame came steadily. He became singer Nancy Wilson’s musical director and that led him to serve the same role in 1989 as bandleader for the Arsenio Hall late-night talk show. He formed bands such as Impure Thoughts, collaborated with stars that included bassist Christian McBride and drummers Tony Williams and Terri Lyne Carrington, and co-founded with drummer Mike Clark the jazz funk band Wolff & Clark Expedition. He was soaring but then crashed with cancer.

“I’m amazingly happy for the borrowed time,” he says. “Having cancer changed my outlook on life and music. I was always insanely obsessed with music. My obsession is still there. But I was also able to be free and recognize that the most important things are my wife and two children. When I was writing the book, I got to thinking about all this music that relates more specifically to my life. Writing the book is deep. That’s what happened with the album.”

When Wolff was sick, he reflected back on his past composer experiences. “I wasn’t sure I was going to make it,” he says. “So I hired a guy to go through all my material, and he came up with so much music that I composed that never got recorded. I wrote a lot in the ’70s, especially for this band I started, Answering Service, with saxophonist Alex Foster. But we never made a record.”

For “Memoir” Wolff breaks the seal and records for the first time the fast-moving, spirited “No Lo Contendre” that tells the story of a journey. He wrote it in the key of B. His trio bandmates, Ben Allison on electric bass and Allan Mednard on drums, lead the charge.

“I told them, here’s the melody,” Wolff says. “Now I need the rhythms. They lay it out. And then I come in and surf and dance on the waves. It’s three-dimensional.”

It’s one of the highlights of the album of more recent originals, but it won’t figure into his set at LTV. “Solo?” he says. “Never. I could play the melody, but I need the rhythm section.”

On “Memoir,” Wolff soulfully covers the 1941-composed standard, “You’ve Changed,” that was part of Nancy Wilson’s songbook that is very meaningful to him. On the blues-undergirding beauty “Leland,” he remembers the deep South town where he spent time as a child with his family’s relatives. He and his band party with glee on the percussive piano tune “Zawinul,” dedicated to the keyboardist who served as Cannonball Adderley’s original band member and later founded the revolutionary jazz fusion band Weather Report.

“I got to know Joe a little through Cannonball,” Wolff says. “When I was touring with Jean-Luc Ponte, we shared a bill with Weather Report, and I got to know Joe much better. He was a unique character who was very supportive. He became my mentor.”

The trio tune is not likely to be a part of Wolff’s show at the jazz festival. But he does have more music to debut, including a new three-part suite that mixes together his song “Hush” with Sufjan Stevens’s 2003 song “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)” and John Lennon’s Beatles tune “In My Life,“ from the 1965 “Rubber Soul” album.

“Lately I’ve been writing in a different way,” Wolff says. “I’ve been writing in more long form that still is jazz. These tunes are stretched.”

He wrote the classical jazz piece, “Suite for Jazz Piano Trio and String Quarter.” Not recorded yet, “Pandemia” is a three-part work that has a classical section reminiscent of French composer Maurice Ravel’s impressionistic music and an end section inspired by the music of the late 20th century innovative artistic composer Vincent Persichetti.

“I’m at a certain age where I’m trying to do great work,” he says. “I’m inspired by the way Miles Davis composed. He approached everything he did as being important. I want to write meaningful music.”

Wolff hints that some of his new works will be a part of the LTV show. But knowing how artists creatively put their set lists together, anything goes. Wolff has a lot to work with. But he promises that he’ll talk about whatever he plays as well as share some of his book.

Michael Wolff performs as part of Hamptons JazzFest and LTV Studios’ East End Underground Live Concert Series on Monday, July 1, at 6 p.m. at LTV Studios, 75 Industrial Road, Wainscott. Tickets are $15 in advance at ltveh.org and $20 at the door. For more information on the festival, visit hamptonsjazzfest.org.

Dan Ouellette is the author of the just-released book, “The Landfill Chronicles — Unearthing Legends of Modern Music,” a 27-chapter collection of archival/memoir stories, published by Cymbal Press and available through Amazon.

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