“‘I felt life swirling around me. I was inspired by Bill Evans’ admonition that ‘‘Truth and beauty’ is all that matters.’”
In the summer of 2015, a grueling and often bewildering four-year battle with a rare cancer had the acclaimed pianist-composer Michael Wolff on the ropes. He’d fallen into a coma at a New York hospital, and the prognosis had moved from doubtful to defeated. His sons Nat and Alex, in the midst of their ascent as two of the most talented actors of their generation, had returned home to be with their father and try to comfort him. They played guitars and sang at his bedside, tapping into the sweet, winsome gifts that had made the Wolffs a famous musical family nearly a decade earlier, via the hit TV series The Naked Brothers Band. At one point, as Wolff was being cared for by his wife, the award-winning actress, director and writer Polly Draper, a doctor asked her if she’d signed a Do Not Resuscitate order. Through the haze of drugs and debilitating illness, Wolff interjected. Lifting his head up, he growled: “Resuscitate me!”
“I guess it just wasn’t my time,” he recalls today, chuckling.
Indeed, Wolff had plenty more life to live and music to make—including Swirl (January 25 / Sunnyside), his radiant new piano-trio album featuring bassist Ben Allison and drummer Allan Mednard, recorded live in the audiophile-worthy environs of the Yamaha piano salon in Manhattan, for a small group of invited guests.
Now 66 and completely healthy, Wolff has seen his personal and creative outlook transform in the profound way that occurs only in those who have been, as the pianist puts it, “to the brink and back.” “My view of life, art and music has changed, developed, matured, widened and focused simultaneously,” says Wolff, who continued to practice and compose diligently throughout his fight. “I savor every day, every view, every person I love and every note I can play and hear.”
Produced by Wolff and John Newcott, Swirl certainly bears out Michael’s newfound appreciation for life’s lucid, unpretentious joys. “A lot of my priorities changed,” he says. “With my music, I still want it to be exciting, but I also really want everything to sound beautiful.” The essential component of that beauty lies in the pianist’s inventive writing and arranging. But an equally crucial reason why Swirl sounds so buoyant and brilliant is the rapport shared among the trio-mates—comfortable and flowing yet full of musical risk-taking, and always interactive. “I like to play with people I love; that’s really important to me,” Wolff says. “That vibe needs to be up there on the bandstand.” When it clicks, Wolff adds, the duties of a bandleader can feel effortless: “Having a group to me is like casting a movie: If you have the right people, you don’t have to say much. You just kind of do the work.”
It kicks off with “Allison,” a gorgeous, ebullient, singing tune co-written by Wolff and his bassist; prior to the trio, the two musicians and New York neighbors developed deep chemistry as a duo. “Metairie,” named for the New Orleans suburb where Wolff has family he continues to visit, is a sly, inquisitive exercise in midtempo swing. “Jenny” was crafted in tribute to a friend who had also suffered with disease—and then rewritten after she found the first piece too dissonant. Following her feedback, Wolff went back to the grindstone with a new m.o.: “I’m going to try to write the prettiest melody I possibly can.” Boasting a blues-flecked groove and a simmering yet driving beat, “Tough Ashkenazi” takes its title from a conversation Wolff had with his pal and fellow pianist Fred Hersch. In 2011, Hersch revealed his own harrowing story of illness, in an innovative stage work called My Coma Dreams. “We’re some tough Ashkenazi’s,” Hersch told Wolff, citing the pair’s shared fortitude and Jewish roots, and causing Wolff to ponder the connection between those traits. “No,” Wolff replied with a laugh. “We’re some tough Ashkenazi motherf---ers.”
released January 25, 2019
Michael Wolff - piano
Ben Allison - bass
Allan Mednard - drums