Drummers across all kinds of musical genres tend to project an image of physical robustness. That may be less true when it comes to proponents in the jazz music sector, which frequently demands a lighter and more sensitive touch from the person behind the drum set. However, that clearly does not impact on Warren Wolf’s fitness regime.
The 35-year-old Wolf is one of the two American artists who will front the upcoming slot of the Hot Jazz series. He and compatriot pianist Aaron Diehl will team up with Israeli counterparts bassist Dor Samoha and drummer Shai Zelman. Their five concerts will cross expansive musical terrain, from gypsy jazz icon guitarist Django Reinhardt to J.S. Bach, and from the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) to original scores. Shows will take place from January 3 to 10 in Ganei Tikva, Herzliya, Modi’in, Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Eagle-eyed readers may already have noted that Zelman is already in the lineup and I introduce Wolf as a drummer, but in fact there will only be one guy pounding the skins in the shows, as Wolf will be kept busy playing his main instrument, the vibraphone. But, while playing vibes often involves taking a softer percussive line, Wolf brings immense controlled strength to his craft.
Besides being the father of three children, classically trained Wolf also keeps himself in shape by lifting weights.
“Being muscular helps me gain a bigger sound when it comes to the vibraphone or the drums,” he says.
“Coming from a classical background, when playing drums or vibes or marimba, I was always taught to keep my hands low and play with the control. That’s a great thing; but when I started going to college and we used to play [jazz] at [Boston venue] Wally’s Café, no one could hear what I was playing because I had a very light sound. I was quite small. I only weighed around 160 pounds (72 kg.), so I started working out and getting a bigger sound.”
The iron pumping duly did the trick.
“I put on about 70 pounds (32 kg.) of muscle. That gave me more power, and people can understand what I’m playing,” he says.
That was when Wolf was a student at the acclaimed Berklee College of Music in Boston. But he first trod his musical path when he was much smaller and lighter.
“I started playing music at the age of three,” says Wolf, adding that he was encouraged by father, who was an amateur musician.
“I’d hear my dad’s band playing on the weekends, and I think I had my first show at the age of five. I think it was a natural progression from what my father was doing,” he says.
Even so, it took a while for Wolf to really get wholeheartedly into the groove.
“I can’t say I enjoyed all of my life, even though I was good at it at an early age,” he says.
The youngster had other infant dreams.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a police officer or an astronaut,” Wolf recalls with a chuckle. “I used to love looking at stars, and I always wanted to get out into space. I thought being an astronaut would be really cool.”
But by the time Wolf was 14, he came back down to Earth and decided he would become a professional musician.
In addition to drums and vibes, Wolf is also a dab hand at the piano, and presumably that helps him to stay on the same musical page with Diehl.
“Very much so,” he says. “Aaron and I are kind of like musical soul mates. We both like to play classical music, but we also play a lot of jazz. When we play duo stuff, we are speaking back and forth but just musically. We have a big communication thing going on, and we play in a very similar way.”
Wolf says that having a mixed disciplinary backdrop to his jazz endeavor also helps him to stay on course.
“I’d say that classical music has definitely helped me as far as my technique goes,” he posits, adding that he also learned to transpose as a matter of necessity.
“When I was playing classical marimba, there weren’t an awful lot of classical works for the marimba, so I would play a lot of pieces on the marimba that were actually written for violin and other instruments, like flute concertos,” he recounts.
Wolf had to keep his act well and truly together when straddling the instrumental divide.
“There were works that had a lot of notes to play, and I had to play really fast. So that made my jazz technique a lot better, and your music reading also gets a lot better,” he says.
Part of the quartet’s program here will be based on the Modern Jazz Quartet, and the MJQ’s lineup and repertoire seem tailor-made for Wolf’s skills and musical areas of interest. The MJQ, which operated from 1946 to 1974 and from 1981 to 1983, not only featured piano, vibraphone and drums, as well as bass, but they also fed off classical music. Unsurprisingly, MJQ vibist Milt Jackson was an early influence on Wolf.
“He was one of my earliest inspirations when it comes to the vibraphone – I would say him and Lionel Hampton and maybe Bobby Hutcherson – but I think Milt Jackson was my favorite. I studied his music starting from a very young age. He always approached the vibes in a very bluesy way, especially in his improvisation, and also in the way he played ballads. He made them sing. He played so beautifully and melodically,” he says.
There appears to be a good chance that the audiences here may be blown away by Wolf’s controlled power and wooed by his gentle touch.For tickets and more information about the Hot Jazz concerts: January 3 at 9 p.m. at Mercaz Habama, Ganei Tikva (Tel: (03) 737-5777); January 6 at Zappa Herzliya – doors open 8:15 p.m., show starts 10 p.m. (Tel: 1-700- 500-039); January 7 at 9 p.m. at Einan Hall in Modi’in (Tel: 1-700-500- 039 and (08) 973-7333); January 8 at 9 p.m. and January 9 at 9:30 p.m. at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Tel: 1-700-500-039 and (03) 573-7301); and January 10 at 9 p.m. at Abba Hushi House in Haifa (Tel: 1-700-500- 039 and (04) 822-7850).