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January 12, 2005

Impure Thoughts, In the Moment

mikewolff.jpgMichael Wolff is the kind of jazz musician that I had presumed to be dead (or Chick Corea), somebody whose mastery of the keyboard and improvisational skill transforms Jazz into something with heart instead of something merely crafty. It turns out that his vivacity has reminded me how much more music there is, and how exciting it is to find it. His quartet, Impure Thoughts was at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood last night. I showed up on a lark, or more like a coconut held between two African swallows, but boy am I glad I did.

Wolff is in the class of improvisational genius I don't often hear. He has a brilliantly fast mind and can move nicely on top of very complex rhythms and never gets bogged down. There was so much in the group's performance last night that I kept finding delicious references sprinkled lightly throughout his work. It's something you expect to find, this being Jazz, but he does it so deftly that it all sounds original. Sebastian, the cat at the next table said that Wolff reminded him of Keith Jarrett. Me, I kept hearing the tenderness of Herbie Hancock, and then I would hear the improvisation and quickness of Chick Corea. But where Wolff is exceptional is his ear for integrating complex rhythms that have no chance of driving his melodies, and to do so against the crackalakin' drums of Mike Clark is really saying something.

I was sitting on Clark's side, so he was occasionally drowning out Badal Roy who was working the tablas on the other side of the stage. I don't think there was anyone in the booth, but by the time the set progressed to the gentler numbers, it was clear to me that there was more than one spot of genius here. This group constitutes is a musical arrangement that isn't done yet. It is capable of doing some very impressive stuff. Impure Thoughts' rendition of 'A Love Supreme' is exstatic. So let me not understate it. It was the most comprehensively joyful expression of Coltrane I have heard since Laswell's seque into Naima on the 'Hallucination Engine' album, which is by the way one of my all time favorite records. That's going back ten years. The version on disc doesn't even catch up to it, but studio time is expensive. Somebody get these boys some time, please.

By the middle of the set, I was thinking how fortunate I am to have this background. To understand the music. And at the same time I kept thinking to myself, how am I going to hear this in China, and how are the Chinese going to learn jazz?

As I watched Badal Roy work the tablas it looked unimpressive. As things worked out, I needed to be closer to him because on the right, most of the time Mike Clark was bangin'. But when I got a chance to really feel him, it seemed almost miraculous. Working his left hand on his bass drum was astonishing. So I closed my eyes and bowed my head and kept time. Suddenly I started feeling it and hearing it on a different level and it instantly blew away so much of the tabla stuff I've been hearing mixed everywhere.

I have to say something more about that, because and maybe I'm going out on a limb here, but tablas seem to be much more than just percussion. I mean you can't rightly compare Roy to Paulino DeCosta or that Escovedo cat. He's doing something different. He seems to be adding space in addition to marking time. That's the best way I can describe it. It's like he's literally splitting up time and slowing it down so you can start to hear faster. It's not so much a beat that you get into and groove with as it is something that opens up time and space. So you can get into a 7/4 time without feeling that it's something mind-bogglingly clever which is the feeling you get listening to the Lounge Lizards or Brubeck.

Impure Thoughts works almost against being a tight quartet. They are subtle and spontaneous but not rambling into a circle of solos. They are evocative and energetic but they don't riff. As you look at them perform, you get the distinct impression of old pros effortless banging out honed skills and making music on the spot. More than any band I've seen or heard recently, these men listen to themselves play and get excited by what they hear. That's why having a song called 'In the Moment' is such a perfect metaphor for what they do. They reinvent this tabla/piano duet from scratch each time they perform.

As for the bassman John B Williams, I have one word: Quartet, as in Herbie Hancock Quartet. Yes that one with Ron Carter. There was no piece in the set that let him run with the bass but he was bending the notes sweetly.

So here's what they are about to do, and I can hear it in the St Thomas Way improv. They are about to connect West African kalimba chord stuff, where you can do things like One Note Samba on just a few keys, and then they are going to immerse it and highlight it with Corea-like arpeggios. They're going to do it with Caribbean speed and energy, with bending bass notes in the tabla space-time continuum, and then its going to have (man this is a great word) a crackalackin' back beat. I've already seen its potential to render Coltrane into new dimensions.

World Jazz? Don't even say that until you hear Michael Wolff and Impure Thoughts, because they are going to open you up again and you're going to see what's possible.

Posted by mbowen at January 12, 2005 08:28 AM

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