Jazz vibraphonist Warren Wolf must like South Florida. Earlier this year, the Baltimore musician/educator toured Miami as part of the SF Jazz Collective, a dynamic supergroup of the genre’s luminaries; next January, he’ll be boarding the Celebrity Millennium out of Fort Lauderdale to perform on the star-studded and convivial Blue Note at Sea contemporary-jazz cruise.
Of most immediate interest is his performance Friday at Arts Garage, a return engagement with a specially curated band: drummer John Lamkin, bassist Jeff Reed and pianist Bashaum Stewart. Wolf has released four albums of mostly original material, but at his Delray Beach engagement, as he explains below, his set will include select compositions from the giants of his instrument.
I noticed on your touring schedule that this Arts Garage performance is the only show all summer with the Warren Wolf Group, as opposed to other outfits that you’re playing with. How will this performance differ from the rest of your shows?
At this performance, what I’ll be featuring is basically the history of the vibraphone. The vibraphone is still relatively new; last year it reached its 100th birthday. For this concert, and whenever I have my own public shows, I title it the History of the Vibes. The whole purpose of the show is to show how the instrument has evolved from the beginning up until today. So I pretty much play a tune from the masters—from Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson and Gary Burton to Roy Ayers, Dave Samuels and people like Stefon Harris, Joe Locke and myself.
When you decide to take on a standard or a classic from the genre—you’ve also done “Bag’s Groove” and “Maiden Voyage,” for example—what is the goal? Is it more fealty to the original, or reinvention of it, or something in between?
For this particular show, I stay close to the original. I don’t do any particular arrangements with any of this music; it’s more or less trying to let people hear how the instrument and the sound have evolved over time.
What appealed to you about the vibes from get-go? You studied other instruments; why did this one stick as your main instrument?
I think the general public has made it stick as my main instrument. Even at home—I live in the Baltimore/D.C. area—I still do drum gigs. I still do piano gigs. It’s just that people know me from the vibes. It’s a much smaller world for that instrument. It’s only maybe a strong 50 people around the world who are doing it at a high level. That’s my guess. It’s not a common instrument like the saxophone or trumpet. In order to play that instrument, somebody has to see it and be attracted to it, because there’s not many middle or high schools that are going to have a vibraphone. Now, most people are aware of the xylophone or the glockenspiel or the bells. But to actually say, we’re going to play this instrument? It’s not many.
My dad was a vibraphone player—not for a living. He taught United States and world history in the Baltimore city public schools, but he had such a love affair for music. I think he bought [a vibraphone] in 1978, and I was born in 1979. Like the true historian he was, he learned a lot of things just by reading books, and going at it on the instrument. There was no YouTube at that time; he probably put on his favorite 8-track player or tape recorder and was listening to the vibraphone of Roy Ayers and Bobby Hutcherson, and trying to copy them. That’s what most of us musicians always did when we were trying to learn something and get better; we copied somebody who registered with our ear.
He started giving me lessons on the vibes, marimba, xylophone and drums. I wasn’t necessarily starting lessons in jazz; that was not my forte. I thought I was going to be a classical musician. One of my first tours, I was 6 years old, was with the Baltimore Symphony. But I was playing in nightclubs at a young age, playing popular music from the ‘80s, like Spyro Gyra, Yellowjackets. But traditional jazz didn’t really kick in for me until maybe high school, when I was about 14 or 15 years old. Until then, I thought it was super-hard—I was like, I don’t understand improvisation. But I do understand classical music!
I still don’t understand it on a technical level, but I know how it makes me feel.
What you’re saying is the most important thing. I’m going to go against myself and a lot of my colleagues in what I’m about to say. I work in jazz education, I’m a faculty member at two schools—Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and the San Francisco Conservatory. A lot of my students ask me questions about the technical side of things. And I try to tell my students, I’ll answer it, but you really should not get caught up too much in the technical stuff, because really, when it comes down to it, if you’re looking at any style of music, it’s about how you’re making people feel. That’s just what it is. The everyday person who knows nothing about music, when they come to the show, they’re not going to question you about harmony, or what scale this was. It’s, “this tune made me feel good.” This is why I tell friends, yes, we are musicians, but I like to look at us like music healers. The everyday person, they go to work every day, and then when they want to spend their hard-earned money to see us entertain them, we want to make them feel good in any way possible.
The vibraphone is also, quite simply, a beautiful instrument. Do you think about beauty when you compose?
Yes, I do. For social media purposes, when I’m putting videos online, a lot of the music you see me playing is all fast. But there’s true beauty in that instrument. There’s a tune on my second record Wolfgang. I wrote a tune called “Annoyance.” It’s a beautiful tune, and I’ll tell you why—I’m not just saying that ‘cause I wrote it. The way I compose nowadays, I compose for other people. One day, my wife and I were watching this Will Smith movie called “Seven Pounds.” And there’s a section in this movie toward the end where there’s some piano music. I could tell as a musician that the composer looped this melody. But the composer, on every third note of the loop, put a cluster in there that made it sound like a mistake. I remember my wife saying, “why does this sound so weird?” And I remember thinking, why does this sound so beautiful? My wife kept saying, “this is so annoying.” It was such a tender part in the movie, and this music style is crazy. So I decided to write a tune, and I put it on that record, and I titled it “Annoyance.” It’s a beautiful tune, a ballad, but if you listen to the piano parts, there’s a lot of dissonance in there. I put it there on purpose, because I want people to really hear what I was doing.
Tell me about the title and theme of your latest album, Reincarnation.
That record is one of my favorites. It came out at a really jacked-up time. The way I came up playing with my dad in the nightclubs, I used to watch them play all this adult contemporary music, and I wanted to go back to that. I didn’t want to be stuck in this box of playing straight-ahead jazz. I love playing straight-ahead jazz, but there’s more to Warren Wolf than just straight-ahead jazz. I called it Reincarnation; it’s like a rebirth, going back to something else, a previous love of R&B music. That album came out in January of 2020. All the dates I had scheduled for that were all canceled. We did make one up recently back in February. I’ve kind of moved on from that record, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to get back in the studio sometime this year and record Part II of Reincarnation.
You were here in South Florida recently with the SF Jazz Collective, doing “New Works Reflecting the Moment.” Is that something you do with your personal compositions; are you influenced by the turmoil of the world when you write?
Not really, but I can be. It just has to move me, if I feel like writing like that. My composition skills, it just depends on what the situation. It has to touch me.
Is your song “Katrina” about the hurricane?
Yes. I remember when I composed that, some guys said to me, “Warren, this is a protest song.” Because Bush was in office at that time, and they were saying, “we feel that Katrina is a protest song about how Bush didn’t care about the people in New Orleans.” And that was totally false. I just composed the song because I thought about the people who were affected by Katrina in general, and who lost lives. Katrina starts off like a classical etude, going back to my classical roots, but then goes into a slow blues right after that. The reason I did that is because New Orleans is all about the blues.
I was watching Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary earlier this year, and was fascinating by the tribalism of the genre in regards to the different factions, from hard bop to modal to free to avant-garde. Do you think these distinctions are relevant to players and to audiences today?
I don’t think so. I think those are just musical terms that jazz musicians in general love to say. But it’s only certain ones; I think it’s pretty much done. Something that comes to mind is trumpeter Nicholas Payton. He likes to get rid of the word jazz in general. He likes to call it BAM—Black American Music. He likes to remind people that the music came from African-Americans.
But it’s the same thing with classical music; you have the Romantic period, the Baroque period. So going forward, I don’t know—I don’t think people will use those terms anymore. Music is music.
The Warren Wolf Group performs at 8 p.m. Friday at Art Garage, 94 N.E. Second Ave., Delray Beach. Tickets cost $45-$50. Call 561/450-6357 or visit artsgarage.org.