Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Rhythm is Life

Rhythm is Life

Warren Wolf continues to expand his creative range with Sylvia Adalman Faculty Recital, new album

Warren Wolf is looking forward to the July 7 release of his new album, Chano Pozo: Origins (Wolfpack Records), his tenth album as leader and third release on his own label. The percussionist and Peabody Jazz faculty artist recorded it in his home studio during the pandemic and showcases on it the expansive musical range of a musician arguably better known to jazz fans as a member of straight-ahead bands led by Bobby Watson or Christian McBride.

Headshot of Warren Wolf

“I’m hoping to gain a lot of traction and festival attention, because this music can’t be performed in clubs,” Wolf says over Zoom from San Francisco, where Peabody magazine caught up with him just after he returned from a run. Wolf is in the Bay Area for a concert at the San Francisco Conservatory and rehearsals with the SFJAZZ Collective, one of the ensembles of which he’s a member, ahead of a busy performing stretch: an April 28 gig at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest with the Jason Marsalis group; an April 30 matinée at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. in a duo with Donal Fox; the May 1 Sylvia Adalman Faculty Recital at Peabody with pianist Alex Brown and the Bergamot Quartet; May 2 at Birdland in New York with the Emmet Cohen Group; and finally May 4 back in San Francisco for the SFJAZZ Gala—before coming back east for the Cape May Jazz Festival May 6 and 7, where Wolf plays his History of the Vibes program (more on that in a bit).

Wolf recorded Origins solo at home during the pandemic, playing every instrument—vibraphone, drums, keyboards, key bass—excerpt horns, which are recorded by guest artists such as Peabody faculty Kristopher Funn, Tim Green and Sean Jones, Preparatory faculty Delandria Mills (MM ’02, Flute; GPD ’05, Flute), and Peabody jazz students Adan Montes and Ebban Dorsey. The album continues the expansion of Wolf’s musical range that he showcased on his last album, Reincarnation (Mack Avenue Records), which leaned on the R&B and soul music Wolf loved growing up.

That album came out in early 2020 at a turning point in Wolf’s career—and life in general. Wolf was wanting to explore sounds and music in addition to the straight-ahead jazz he’d been performing for 20 years as a touring artist. He was starting to teach more, which meant more time at home with his wife and kids, and more time to write and think about recording projects. He had just turned 40 and was starting to wonder what the next decade of his creative life would bring. And his contract with Mack Avenue Records was coming to an end. And, of course, early 2020 witnessed the beginning of what would become the pandemic, disrupting everything—especially the performing arts.

Peabody magazine asked Wolf about his new album, his Sylvia Adalman Faculty recital—performing Chick Corea’s Lyric Suite for Sextet with pianist Alex Brown and the Bergamot Quartet, comprised of Ledah Finck (BM ’16, MM ’18, Violin); Sarah Thomas (BM ’17, MM ’19 Violin); Amy Huimei Tan (GPD ’20, Viola); and Irène Han (MM ’18, Cello)—and how his ongoing career evolutions inform his teaching.

Your last album came out right before the pandemic and, at the time, you talked about getting your home studio set up, starting to incorporate R&B into your music, and doing more teaching, a change from being on the road for nearly 20 years. What’s the background to this album?

There’s two stories behind the record, and one goes back to the pandemic when everything shut down. I had instruments in my in my basement but no microphones, no recording gear, no nothing, and I thought this whole thing was going to blow by in a couple of weeks. I started practicing to backing tracks on YouTube, just jazz standards, and I got bored quickly.

I called a few friends asking what I needed to start recording at home, and I finally got the gist of Logic, the music software program. I sent a couple of things to my friends Joe Locke on vibes and Walter Smith III, chair of the woodwind department at Berklee, asking, Can you play over this and just send it back to me? Eventually, I just started doing it all myself—slowly at first, but I must have recorded at least 140 different tracks in my house.

Now, right when the pandemic happened, we were supposed to tour behind Reincarnation. Instead, I wound up recording another record right when things shut down, the Christmas record. My contract with Mack Avenue Records was coming to an end and I started to think, What do I want to do? I wasn’t really sure.

I originally contacted some good friends of mine, very good musicians, and I wanted to record with them. Then I remembered somebody asking me once, “Warren why don’t you do a record like Prince or Stevie Wonder? You can play all these instruments by yourself—why don’t you just do it by yourself?”

I couldn’t think of a jazz recording where the main artist played everything, so the whole record is done in my basement where I’m playing every single instrument except for the horns, because I don’t play horns. And I make my singing debut using a talk box, just to show what I can do. I’m not just a vibraphone player. I can play the piano. I can play drums. I can write.

I think I read that Chano was a nickname growing up—is this album a bit autobiographical?

I look at this album as showing my humble beginnings. My name is Warren Edward Wolf, Jr., and my father Warren, Sr., was a huge fan of music and was self-taught. My grandfather was a pianist in the ’50s and ’60s, and my dad wanted to play but his father never taught him—my dad was one of six boys and five girls, there wasn’t time. My father became a history teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools and started doing what most musicians do: they listen to records and learn how to play.

He gave me the name Chano Pozo, after the Latin percussionist with Dizzy Gillespie back in the day. And to my family—uncles, aunts, cousins, sisters—nobody calls me Warren. Everybody calls me Chano. When I put the album teaser out on social media, I had a couple of people ask if I was doing Pozo’s music and I had to tell them, this isn’t a Pan-American jazz record.

R&B artist D’Angelo’s “Lady” is the only song you didn’t write on the album. I’ve seen you mention that his Voodoo is one of your favorite albums; “Lady” is off his Brown Sugar debut. What is it about that ’90s era specifically of R&B called neo-soul that connects with you?

I remember when I first heard D’Angelo. My girlfriend in high school was singing this song called “Cruising,” which Smokey Robinson composed at first but then D’Angelo did a version of it. Back then, we were all looking at music videos, and the video was mainly black and white, there’s an orchestra behind him and he’s playing the Fender Rhodes. And right there I was like, what is this keyboard he’s playing?—because I’ve never heard one. It’s so smooth and I just love that sound. Raphael Saadiq, D’Angelo, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Maxwell, Jill Scott—I love the sound of all of those artists because, to me, they’re taking elements of traditional jazz and put a nice groove around it. I like how I feel when I hear it.

You make your singing debut on the album through a Talk Box, you’ve posted about working with the keytar you recently acquired—what does the new gear allow you to do?

It frees me up so I don’t have to play vibes the entire time. I’ve watched clips of myself, of really good shows, and even I get tired of hearing the instrument. In the last five to six years I’ve been thinking about how to become more of an entertainer. My concerts are still very much about the music, but I like to give people a little something extra.

People at concerts are often amazed at the visual side of performing, and an instrument like the vibraphone is something you don’t see all the time. So people can be fascinated by that but, in my eyes, they’re even more surprised when they see that you can do other things.

Last year at a jazz festival I got stuck with a terrible vibraphone and I could not perform what I wanted, so I made a last-minute audible. They had a Fender Rhodes backstage and I had my Vocoder with me. And I told the DJ in the band, [Peabody faculty] Wendel Patrick, ‘I need you to do a few minutes by yourself.’ And when he was doing that I got on the drums, did a solo, eventually went over to the piano for a solo. Now I like to add different elements in my shows because it makes me think more and gets my creative juices flowing, and I like to make sure people are having a good time.

The only negative is that it’s just more crap for me to bring, but it’s very musically fulfilling.

Have your evolutions as an artist informed your teaching?

A little bit because I encourage my students to just go for the gusto, too: there’s so much music out here to explore and play. In school for most jazz students, not just at Peabody, when they come in we immediately go back to the ’40s and ’50s to teach them. Now, don’t get me wrong, they need that.

But there’s always a few kids who know that stuff really well and those are the ones I encourage to seek out more—because life, in my opinion, is not just about straight ahead jazz. You can play smooth jazz, funk, Indian music, Asian music, South and Pan American music. There’s so much music that you can incorporate into what you do and you have to be honest with yourself and see what speaks to you.

Just don’t go for if you’re not genuine about it. Because of how I’ve grown up, I’m very genuine about playing straight ahead ’90s R&B. My wife is always asking me, “Why do you always make these slow jam songs?” That’s what I like, you know? But there’s a lot of music that I like. I’m also very genuine about straight ahead jazz, hip-hop, singer/songwriter stuff, and classical music. There’s a lot of music I play where I stick parts of classical music in there, because at one point I thought I was going to be a classical player.

How did you come to the Lyric Suite for Sextet?

During the pandemic the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra asked me to be a guest for its Artists Discovery series. I could do whatever I want, but at the time no horns were allowed in the hall, only strings.

Now, I’ve always wanted to do a straight-ahead jazz quartet with a symphony orchestra—which is something I still want to do at some point—and I thought about writing something new, but during that pandemic year it was very hard for me to teach on Zoom and my entire day was taken up and I wasn’t finding time to write. I called Gary Burton, the great vibraphonist who is now retired and living down in Fort Lauderdale. I asked him if he knew about any pieces for vibes, piano, and string quartet, and he told me about this piece he recorded with Chick Corea called Lyric Suite, and without even listening to it, I said, Cool—I’ll take it, and told the BSO.

I finally get the music and listened to it and I thought, OK, what did I get myself into? This music is, in my opinion, maybe 80 percent classical and then the rest has some improv in there. But I enjoy the challenge; it’s just something different from me—I think I’m doing everything that I’ve been trained to do: playing classical music, which I’ve always done, and combining it with my love of jazz.

Where is this activity taking you—as a composer, performer, educator?

I have a few projects that I want to do—one that I’ve been thinking about for about two, almost three years now, called the History of the Vibes. The vibraphone is still relatively new—as in just more than 100 years old. There are a lot of great players of the instrument, but I would go off my personal favorites starting from the beginning all the way up to today: Lionel Hampton, the blues of Milt Jackson, the modernism of Bobby Hutcherson, the Latin of Cal Tjader, and so forth. That’s one project I’m looking to record.

As far as composition, I don’t know yet. I haven’t thought about another record compositionally, I keep thinking about these stylistic projects. I want to do a Latin record. I want to do a symphony orchestra project. Believe it or not, I want to do a metal record, metal and jazz, because I know some fantastic drummers and bass players and we’ve been talking about that.

And I do want to re-record Lyric Suite because I want to be able to play different halls where most jazz musicians wouldn’t go. Classical musicians play in huge cathedrals across the world that I want to be able to play, but I don’t want to take a jazz band because then it just sounds like a big echo chamber. I have to talk to the string quartet and see if we can come up with a timeframe to record this.

Do you have favorite running routes in every city you tour through these days?

Definitely here in San Francisco and other cities. Honestly, I just go out and see what happens. I don’t run for too long, four miles at most, but it depends. If the weather’s feeling really good, I’ll try to get in six or seven miles.

I’m also a big hiker. There’s an app called All Trails that I love to follow. During the pandemic when all the gyms were closed, I must have done at least 65 trails that summer. Eventually I started to run those, too, because one day I was on one of these trails and I think I picked a five miler and after walking for two and a half, I thought it was taking too long. I started to run just to get it over with, and I found out that I like the ups and downs of the hills. You just can’t run too fast because you might hit a tree branch.