Sure, the vibraphonist/multi-instrumentalist, composer and bandleader Warren Wolf loved the extra bonding time with his five children and wife, though he also felt the exuberant vibrations of audience cheers and echoes of live music calling in the wind. Like his fellow musicians around the world he was ready to return to performing live concerts after the surprise attack of the COVID-19 pandemic forced a shut-down of all live venues. During that ordeal he was performing livestreams to empty venues like Keystone Korner in Baltimore. In this new era of post-vaccines and now booster shots, musicians like Warren have resumed earning their living performing before live audiences. During a recent mini-tour he performed his project “History of the Vibes” to a live, sold-out audience at Dizzy’s jazz club, in Manhattan.
“I thought about this project for two years, 2021 marked the 100th anniversary of the vibraphone,” said Wolf. “I decided to let people know about this instrument and educate them about other musicians who played this instrument like Lionel Hampton, Bobby Hutcherson, Milt Jackson and Terry Gibbs [age 97].” His repertoire at Dizzy’s included the music of these inspirational vibraphonists and music from “Reincarnation” (2020), his fourth CD for Mack Avenue Records.
“Reincarnation,” with its ten tracks and the vibraphonist’s eight original compositions, reflects his soulful memories of groups like Mint Condition, D’Angelo and Tupac swinging in the groove, in the jazz tradition. It begins with his composition “For Ma,” an upbeat soulful serenade dedicated to his mom, Celeste Wolf, who passed away in 2015. The “Vahybing” is a hardhittin’ tune with both Wolf and the drummer in an all-out fiery chat. His personnel features veterans and rising stars such as vocalist Imani Grace Cooper, who he discovered while she was a student at Howard University; drummer Carroll “CV” Dashiell III (a rising star on the Washington, D.C. scene), keyboardist Brett Williams (“his strong sense of R&B and gospel is a great combination”); bassist Richie Goods and guitarist Mark Whitfield’s six-strings can be heard on two tracks. This music is as vibrant as a rainbow.
“It’s about showcasing all the music I can feel. I am just a musician who likes to explore different things to make the listener or audience feel good,” said Wolf. “Reading the audience is very important, taking myself off the bandstand to see where they are coming from. Musicians I play with are always ready to play anything.”
During his time at Berklee Wolf was an active member of Boston’s jazz scene, playing the vibraphone, drums, and piano, and with his friend, trumpeter Jason Palmer, he co-led a group at Wally’s Cafe, Boston’s main jazz venue, where he was the house drummer.
“After graduating from college [Berklee College of Music] all I wanted to do was play straight-ahead jazz, swing beat. But later when I was gigging with Carmen Lundy, she opened everything up,” said Wolf. “She sang funk, R&B and classical and from there I really went out there. I didn’t grow up in jazz, my dad [Warren Wolf Sr.], who was my first teacher, wanted me to play everything from classical, R&B, hip hop, to ragtime. Now, looking forward, I need to bring those aspects back to life.”
Wolf says he wasn’t interested in playing music—his goal was to work for NASA, he loved science and space. “My dad was a history teacher and part time musician, and my grandfather, James Nelson Wolf, was a pianist. I began piano lessons at age three and it extended to the vibraphone, marimba, and drums.” His lessons started at 5:30 to 6:30 with piano; from 6:30 to 7:30 on drums and from 7:30 to 8:30 it was vibraphone. “It was like that five days a week from the time I was 5 until I was 17. It was hard, because what kid wants to be stuck in the basement practicing when he could be outside playing?” explained Wolf. “But when I played a solo in the seventh grade, people clapped and later came up to say, ‘Warren, you sound really good.’ I got off on that, so I kept practicing. My father told me music will take you around the world and meet a lot of people. I learned control, technique and speed by playing along to violin concertos.” As a youngster his father called him Chano Puzo, in honor of his favorite Cuban jazz percussionist and singer.
“My father loved Latin music and percussion and Chano played with Dizzy,” noted Wolf.
You can find him playing with bassist, composer, and producer Christian McBride & Inside Straight, and leading his own successful band Wolfpack. He was the pianist for the Rachael Price Group and became the drummer of choice for alto saxophonist Tia Fuller. He is also a member of the Donal Fox Group which includes bassist John Lockwood and drummers Danis Preito and Terri Lyne Carrington and he toured with Bobby Watson’s “Live and Learn.” His recordings as a bandleader and composer which featured such musicians as pianist Mulgrew Miller, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, and bassist Vicente Archer have made him a force in the tradition of vibraphonists. His continued creativity and exploratory path earned him an invitation to join America’s most creative jazz ensemble, the SFJazz Collective. The San Francisco nonprofit jazz institution sponsors a resident collaborative octet (all composers and bandleaders in their own right) that each year records a two-CD, 16-track album devoted to one composer. He says, “I am the utility guy—I can play what’s needed.”
For the New Year 2022, Wolf is booked for concerts and international tours until June ending in Paris. He will perform in January at the Tucson Jazz Festival; unfortunately the closest to the Big Apple will be his appearance at the Hudson Jazz Festival in upstate New York on Feb. 18. Other dates will include performances in Germany, Budapest, London, Florida, Chicago, Denver, Denmark, Italy and Spain. He will be performing as a leader with music from his current CD and “History of the Vibes,” as well as a member of McBride’s “Inside Straight” and with the Dave Stryker Group.
Fortunately, despite how difficult his travel schedule is, the 43-year-old Baltimore native (he returned to the Baltimore area in 2004) says he has a daily exercise/weight lifting routine worked out. He says it’s about being flexible.
“‘Reincarnation’ is an album about love and feel-good music. At this point in my life, I just wanted to show that I can be versatile in many different styles. I plan to continue to grow and play all the wonderful music that has shaped me as a musician today.”