Leader of the Pack
Jazzman Warren Wolf incorporates classical influences on an innovative second album
Published: January 1, 2014
Warren Wolf is one of Baltimore’s premier jazz musicians. He’s a triple threat, who can switch between vibraphone, piano, and drums with ease. He has been on tour internationally, as both a sideman and band leader with his group, Wolfpack. And world-famous jazz musicians know his name and routinely call him for gigs.
“I’m kind of the resident vibraphonist for Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. When they need a vibraphonist, I’m getting a call,” says Wolf, noting that he has played with trumpeter and Lincoln Center jazz director Wynton Marsalis “plenty of times.”
Another musician with a global reputation, bassist Christian McBride, also regularly calls on Wolf ever since they played together in the middle of last decade. (Wolf and McBride play two shows at An die Musik on Sunday, Jan. 5.)
Despite his strong standing as a jazz performer, Wolf acknowledges that making a career as a full-time jazz musician these days is a slog. While he’s proud of his work—his albums, bands, and a gigging history that stretches back to age 5—Wolf is reluctant to put himself in a box.
“I never want to classify myself as a jazz musician; I believe I’m just a musician,” the 34-year-old said in early November in Baltimore during a rare week-long break from a packed touring schedule.
Nowhere is that resistance more evident than on his second studio album, Wolfgang, which came out in August. The title is both a play on Wolf’s last name and an homage to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; several tunes on the album have strong classical influences. Were it not for the telltale sound of the vibes that kick off the piece, the album’s last track, “Le Carnaval de Venise,” could be mistaken for a purely classical tune.
“Sometimes us musicians in jazz are like mad scientists. We’re writing all these tunes that are so hard with these odd meters,” he says. “I just figured: Why not just write melodies? Jazz is hard enough to sell as it is.”
The classical influence on Wolf’s latest album is as much a reflection of his upbringing and his practice as a player as it is a way to showcase himself as a complete musician.
Wolf grew up in Edmondson Village, and while he watched cartoons and played with friends as any other child did, his father, Warren Wolf Sr., kept him to a strict practice regimen. A former Baltimore City public school teacher and a musician himself, the elder Wolf played weekend gigs with his band—also the Wolfpack—at the old Sportsman’s Lounge and served as his son’s first teacher on the vibes, marimba, drums, and piano. Starting at age 3 with vibes and drums, Wolf practiced for an hour and a half every day after school. Piano followed later, around age 6. In the summertime, Wolf’s practice schedule doubled. And for seven years beginning at age 5, he took lessons in classical music at Peabody Preparatory under the tutelage of the late Leo LePage, a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra member.
That classical sensibility stayed with Wolf through his four years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. It was only when Wolf headed to Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 1997 that he tacked back toward jazz, working mainly on becoming a good improviser. Still, he made sure to balance time on all instruments, picking up piano and vibes gigs in between a regular weekend drumming gig at a place called Wally’s Café.
“In music, people tend to put you in this box. That’s the jazz guy,” says Wolf, who practices and keeps his instruments in a large first-floor room in the Copycat Building. “Same thing with instrument choice—that’s the vibes guy. So I tried to make people realize I do other things.”
Even since returning to Baltimore in 2004, Wolf has tried to be diverse. He’s known as a drummer, but he plays vibes for the Wolfpack and the SFJAZZ Collective, an all-star lineup of eight jazz musicians that Wolf joined in 2013 and goes back out on tour with in March. At the Caton Castle, Wolf is usually found behind the piano, playing tunes whenever drummer Robert Shahid can book him.
His style of play, however, is unmistakable, and while he doesn’t like being pegged as a vibraphonist only, it’s hard to disassociate him from the instrument. Wolf’s touch is distinctive. He’s a percussive player and hits the vibes hard and true. The title track off his latest album is testament to that, even though it’s a slower song with heavy classical influences. His first eponymous album displays that distinctiveness much better, particularly in the first track, “427 Mass Ave.,” which opens with Wolf’s forceful vibes work.
“You can make a living doing jazz,” Wolf says. “But you have to be really exceptional.”
In Wolf’s case, that means breaking the mold on occasion but always falling back on his formidable strengths.
Warren Wolf and Christian McBride play two shows at An die Musik on Sunday, Jan. 5.
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