With the release of Wolff and Clark Expedition 2, on Random Act Records, pianist Michael Wolff and drummer Mike Clark offer the second document of their kinetic collaboration. As on their first Expedition, the masters play with the hunger and energy of musicians half their age, offering—as Jazz Times put it—a “groove-minded, harmonically savory” mix of straight-ahead, rockish, funky and Latin jazz, “inventively arranged, expertly performed and a lot of fun to listen to,” but addressing the repertoire with what Clark calls a “jazzier,” on-the-highwire orientation stemming from frequent bandstand interaction. Adding fuel to the combustible environment of exploration, chance-taking and musical conversation are bass giant Christian McBride, who performs on six selections (17-year-old virtuoso Daryl Johns plays on four); trumpet titan Wallace Roney, who uncorks two brilliant solos; and scintillating newcomer Hailey Niswanger on soprano and alto saxophone.
“Michael brings out my experimental, pushing-the-envelope side,” says Clark, 68, a drum icon since the ’70s for the innovative funk beats that propelled Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. “With him, I can live emotionally. There are fantastic players that you have to keep time for--or stay in a certain direction that doesn’t allow you to get too loose. But Michael’s feel allows me to take it as far as I want to. I can be over-the-bar or polyrhythmical, or attempt to play like Max Roach. He knows so much history; he can translate my stuff without even thinking about it.”
Wolff, 62, whose early associations include Cal Tjader, Cannonball Adderley and Nancy Wilson, notes another mutual affinity. “We came up when everybody was loving all different kinds of music,” he says. “You were proud to play the different styles, without putting yourself in a box. As a youngster in the Bay Area, I could play funk like a funk guy and Latin like a Latin guy. When we play, we bring the energy from all the cats we’ve played with, but with the attitude and vocabulary of today.
“I started out as a drummer, and I like to create a magical tension-and-release within the rhythm. I love the way Mike mixes the beats, the way he turns the time around on a dime. I feel total freedom to do whatever I want rhythmically. Our jazz is in the moment. It’s different every single time, and we don’t want it any other way.”
Their simpatico—evident on spontaneously generated piano-drum duos on Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy” and Ornette Coleman’s “Invisible”—dates to 1969, when Wolff, then 17, was house pianist at San Francisco’s legendary Both/And Club, joined by either Ray Drummond or Steve Turre on bass and Augusta Lee Collins on drums. Then working with a band co-led by Woody Shaw and Bobby Hutcherson, who had both recently relocated to the Bay Area, Clark sat in one evening, and was impressed.
“Michael could play bebop, but he had a blues thing running through the changes,” Clark says. “I thought he sounded great, and he had the same reaction to me. At the end of the ‘70s, after I’d been with Herbie and Eddie Henderson and Joe Henderson, we met again in New York, and formed a trio with bassist Jon Burr.”
Wolff had moved to New York in 1974 to join Airto Moreira. When off the road, he hit the piano saloon circuit, working six-night-a-week, $25-for-four-sets gigs at venues like the Surf Maid on Bleecker Street, where iconic figures like Jaco Pastorius and Joe Williams sat in. After-hours, he and a bassist friend jammed, “choose a key and play every song we knew in that key—we learned it old-school, on the bandstand, playing live.”
The partners lost touch during the decade after 1989, when Wolff moved to California to become musical director for the Arsenio Hall Show, but reunited after Wolff returned to New York City. “We called each other occasionally, but we both were super-busy,” Clark says. “Then Michael called me to fill in for his regular drummer in his group Impure Thoughts, and I started hiring him for gigs too. We were doing a lot of postbop gigs with people like Sonny Fortune, Nat Adderley and Chet Baker. We were working together so much that we decided to start a band.
“It made sense, because we were thinking the same way. We didn’t want to play traditional 1955 bebop or any electric music. We wanted to play like the postbop dream that many people my age have, and combine it with whatever we come up with right on the spot—a conversational band where he’s taking a solo and I’m commenting on it.”
During the two recording sessions that generated Expedition 2, all members followed Wolff’s dictum of “being relaxed in the moment and just creating,” exploring multiple environments within the course of pieces like the Wolff and Clark's composition “Madiba,” a title conjured by the album’s producer (and Random Act Records owner) Scott Elias to honor the recently deceased Nelson Mandela. It begins with the pianist’s refraction of McCoy Tyner circa 1975, shifts to a piano-drums exposition, and morphs into a Highlife motif that leads to a flowing, flawlessly constructed solo by Roney, before Wolff begins a final section with whirling unaccompanied piano variations, then resolves into a concluding piano-drums duo shaped by Clark’s abstract, kinetic grooves.
Similar multi-thematic imperatives define Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night In Tunisia,” which opens with abstract soprano saxophone swirls from Niswanger (whose swooping, over-the-barlines soprano solo is a highlight of Wollf’s arrangement of Prince’s “1999”), a reharmonized vamp by Wolff, and a Roney solo that merges the refracted spirits of the composer and Roney’s personal hero, Miles Davis.
Functioning with the rhythmic force of a drummer, McBride uncorks stunningly forceful, thematically cogent pizzicato declamations on Wolff’s "Clark Bar” and “Mulgrew” and Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Dream” (propelled by Clark’s strutting march cadences) and “In Walked Bud” (addressed in 7/4), but also presents achingly soulful arco statements on Wolff’s plush, melancholic “Stray” (for Duke Ellington’s alter-ego Billy Strayhorn).
“I’m trying to be like the orchestra and the soloist,” Wolff says, summing up. “I feel our band is so strong because Mike and I insist that everybody play that way.” The Wolff & Clark Expedition continues to explore and to challenge unconventional boundaries.