Michael Wolff & Impure Thoughts: Intoxicate

Michael Wolff & Impure Thoughts
Indianola Music

Pianist Michael Wolff’s previous album, the first with his band Impure Thoughts (and which also bore that name) was one of the finest records of 2000. The album was admirable for the way in which Wolff held different genres of music up to the light to see what each threw into relief. That album communicated itself to listeners almost immediately, establishing a connection by catching the ear with fiery, percussive numbers that sounded foreign enough to be lively, yet familiar enough to not be impenetrable.

There’s much similarly cool on Intoxicate, not the least of which is the song “Cool”, a radical piano trio with bass, tabla and a Brazilian percussion instrument called a berimbau. Rhythm is even more a part of this recording than it was of Impure Thoughts, from Badal Roy’s tablas to the drum ‘n’ bass-esque beats of the “Witch Hunt” remix that shuts down the album, to Victor Jones’ more standard kit to Frank Colon’s percussion. Wolff has pointed out in the past that the piano, too, is a percussion instrument, and you could say that by playing this kind of music, he is giving percussion more of a tone of voice.

Alex Foster’s saxophone sounds much more agreeable this time around. His work was, for me, one of the only weak spots of the last album, not in terms of execution but of distinction, I found it faultless yet bland. Here his tone is warmer and much more pleasing, especially on “Witch Hunt”. Either he’s improved, I’ve mellowed, or possibly both. As I think of his playing on Intoxicated now, I think of it as being ratherr minimalist, terse, as if hewere saying his piece, hitting hard, and getting out till his next entrance, which serves the album well. John B. Williams on bass remains, as before, one of the most reliable members of Wolff’s band. His playing is more groove and less melody oriented than before, as is the case with much of the album.

For all the animation of most of the songs here, perhaps the best is the more restrained, straight ahead ballad “Pandora’s Box”. Some of Wolff’s most impressive playing this album is also to be found on the stealthy cover of Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder”. Another cover, a slinky, Indian-tinged remake of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, also sets the feet to tappin’.

Intoxicate, is not as immediately ingratiating as its predecessor. That’s not a criticism, necessarily, it’s just that where Impure Thoughts came right to you with a sense of immediacy, Intoxicate seems to want you to come to it, and doesn’t make it as easy of an effort. Yet, sure enough, it grows on you. What sustains and strengthens it upon repeated listening is his musical curiosity and interest in combining new sounds with old, to take jazz at least a step or two forward rather than back to the lecture hall. What’s next, Michael?