Pianist Michael Wolff and drummer Mike Clark put together a truly stellar lineup of musicians for the launch of their new band Wolff Clark Expedition at The Jazz Standard in NYC last night. Even though, full disclosure, I’m friends with the band, I have trouble not viewing last night as one of the best jazz shows I’ve seen or heard in years — a mix of kick-ass music, intricate jazz and funkified, rip-snorting jams.
Wolff, a veteran of Cannonball Adderly and Cal Tjader’s bands, showed his musicianship and emcee chops (from his days as musical director of The Arsenio Hall Show), directing the band and chatting with the audience, tossing off one-liners with aplomb. His playing sparkled with intensity and shimmered with soaring solos.
Mike Clark, a jazzy post-bop stickman who also recorded with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, laid down a killer swing foundation for the band to coalesce around. His rapport with bassist James Genus, was rock steady yet delicately nuanced, feather touch, tighter than tight.
Genus’s bass work on the upright is a sight to behold, eyes closed, mouth moving, he drives and pulses the music, weaving sudden changes in feel and time in lockstep with Clark’s drumming.
The set started off with a ripping version of Cole Porter’s What Is This Thing Called Love, Wolff’s arrangement wove the unshakeable rhythm section with his exuberant piano work and the sinuous melodies of the two saxophonists, the great Lenny Pickett on tenor, and the excellent Steve Wilson on alto. Lenny soloed first, blowing the sonic roof off; Wilson’s fiery alto solo highlighted their contrasting yet complimentary styles, making it hard to believe they had never played together before.
The quintet format with dual sax work supplementing the trio works to make the music intricate but entirely accessible. The improvisation was spot on, Wolff’s solos percussively and tunefully shone, Pickett and Wilson soared and drove each other upwards, Clark spewed syncopated and silky stickwork, and Genus gave us grooving, intense, melodic, inside and outside soloing.
The club was crowded and buzzing, the audience digging each song, grokking each shift in style and tone. The Cole Porter tune, showing off killer solos; a funky, jazzy, soulful version of Come Together; a luscious original, Ballad Noir, starring a balletic, breathy, beautiful solo from Mr. Pickett; Harbour Island, a jazzer written by Wolff; and closed out with Loft Funk, an incredible mix of funk, jazz, and improvising penned by Mike Clark.
The set list showed the mettle and flair that the Wolff Clark Expedition are bringing to the jazz scene: standards blended with original songs and covers of contemporary classics, all in a high-energy, pulsating, groove-heavy style. The set delivered in spades: the audience left talking about it, and the staff at The Jazz Standard labeled the set one of the best shows they’d seen there.
Photos courtesy of David Sokol, copyright 2012.