Baltimore multi-instrumentalist Warren Wolf has been around. Around music? Yeah. Around the world? That too. Around some of the music greats of our time period? Definitely true. Around the Revivalist? Absolutely! Around you?…
You got started with music at a young age, tell me about that.
I first got started in music through my father, Warren Wolf Sr. He got me started when I was a child at the age of three years old. We started off playing the classical music, ragtime music, jazz music and things like that as a child. I first started on the marimba, and then went to vibraphone; I mean I continued to play both of them at the same time. Eventually as I got older I started getting into drums—just a couple years later. Like I said, I started at three-years-old, drums came around five, piano didn’t come until high school, and then I started messing around with the bass during my senior year of high school.
With all of these instruments, did you take traditional lessons, or were some of them self-taught?
My father was the first teacher I had for everything. He taught me the basics, you know, scales and chords and things like that. Like I said, when it came to the marimba/vibes, he taught me my first chords on piano and stuff like that. But along the way there were some other teachers around. There’s one teacher, he’s passed on now, but Leo LePage. He was a member of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but he was an accomplished jazz drummer who used to work a lot back in Baltimore, back in those days. He was one of my main teachers from a young age. My second teacher was a guy named John Locke. He’s a member of the Baltimore Symphony presently. He was my teacher through high school. Before I went to high school at the Baltimore School for the Arts, I was attending Peabody Preparatory during Saturday morning lessons. That’s when I studied with Leo LePage for about seven or eight years.
So you graduate high school and begin studying at Berklee College of Music. Tell me about Dave Samuels, your teacher there.
Dave was a great teacher. He has his own group called the Caribbean Jazz Project. He also has a duo group with another vibraphonist, Dave Freidman. He was my teacher at Berklee for seven of my eight semesters. One semester I studied with a guy named Ed Saindon. But yeah, Dave was my man. I studied with him—well if you want to call it studying. I don’t want to insult him, but a lot of the times, you know, I would say my true real lessons were my first year. I’ve learnt a ton from him since then, but it was more like just playing. I believe that’s the best way to teach somebody, just keep playing and playing. You place yourself around someone who is better than yourself. That was my way of learning from him.
Do you feel like a traditional music education, such as Berklee, is essential for young musicians coming up?
Yes and no. Berklee is a great school. I’ll say that for starters. There’s a lot of great advantages to the school, or just any music school that you can get into. But it’s all dependent on what you want. I’m not taking anything away from Berklee, I loved every minute of it, but for what I did, honestly, I could’ve learned what I’m using now at certain jazz clubs. The stuff that I’m actually using to make my living I could get from just sitting in and meeting other musicians. But there are certain things at Berklee that you can learn that you probably would not learn just sitting in with other musicians like—I mean I already knew how to read music from a young age—but things like harmony, ear training, and how to do arranging, things like that. I did put that to use. So it was more of the technical stuff, I guess if you want to call it the behind-the-scenes. It wasn’t so much the playing as other little things that you apply to the music.
Speaking of jazz clubs, tell me about your time playing at Wally’s in Boston. Did that help to further your career?
Yeah, very much. My first gig at Wally’s was with my man, this is my dude, John Lampkin. Me and him work together still to this day. He was the first one to actually give me a gig at the club. Coming from Baltimore, they were playing tunes I had never heard of before, so it was a matter of just learning the tunes and hearing different ways to create and shape your solos. I learnt things from that standpoint when I was a younger guy, only 17-years-old. And that’s on vibraphone. As I got older, I stayed in that club at Wally’s with my group I co-led with a trumpeter named Jason Palmer called the Warren Wolf/Jason Palmer Jazz Experience. We had our own group that we led there for two years. For that I was playing drums, so I got to play every weekend for two years. That’s when I learned other ways to shape a solo as a drummer, and how to accompany other musicians. Occasionally I would still go back and play vibes, and every now and then I would play the gig on piano.
Did playing with so many talented musicians have a big impact on your playing?
Yeah, but I probably didn’t know I was learning from them until after the gig was over, or months later even. It was definitely a big part of it. It’s not even like much older musicians. For instance, I work with Christian McBride. We play good music every night on the road and I don’t think about it like, “Wow, I just learned something from him,” but in actuality when I go back and recap on that event, I actually am learning something. I learn something from just about everybody. It happens in all genres too. I don’t consider myself just a jazz musician. I’ll say jazz is my forte, jazz is what I like to do, jazz is what I can keep doing until the day I die. It’s unlike a lot of other types of music where there’s an age limit. When you get there it’s like, ok, you have to stop and give it on to somebody else. For me, I learn from all types of music.
Tell me about your process for writing music.
It all depends on just what I want to hear or what I’m feeling. Nowadays with the stage that I’m in right now, I’m trying to write more music that’s for the people. What I mean by “the people” is just the normal person. I want to play music that a random person the corner might understand. Playing jazz music with a lot of complex changes and stuff like that is all fine, I mean I can do that, it’s a beautiful thing that we can all do that, but sometimes I like to cater to the random person on the corner. It can be swing, it can be R&B, it can be jazz. It doesn’t really matter. I just want to make the simplest melody, a melody that everyone can sing. I usually tend to write from my Fender Rhodes that I have at my place.
Do you see jazz mixing with hip-hop or R&B, or are these all separate? Does it work when you try to mix them?
If you would’ve asked me that five years ago I would’ve said no. Five or six years ago I could totally laugh at you. Personally I’ve only experimented with it a little bit, but it is something that I plan on doing. It does work. Three people that come to mind are Esperanza Spalding, you know she is doing her own thing. At heart she is definitely a jazz musician, as a matter of fact she still plays jazz gigs with like Herbie Hancock. But in her music she’s adding bits of like grooves, still straight ahead jazz, but with some type of pop feeling to it. Another person that comes to mind is Robert Glasper. He’s doing like totally hip-hop, he’s not even doing a traditional jazz swing like on the ride or anything. And then, Christian Scott comes to mind; he does so many different kinds of things. I mean eventually, something that I would like to do – I’m not sure if it would work, but I’m sure it can work if I put my mind to it – is something like involving heavy metal and jazz. So, that’s something that I would like to explore eventually.
What types of bands influence you in the heavy metal realm?
Well my first experience with heavy metal was at Berklee. I remember there was this band, it was the type of guys that had this long hair and were singing into the mic. It’s not really singing notes, you know, I don’t know how to explain it, but this band was called Kevorkian. I was probably he only black guy at the show. I don’t really know any groups in death metal, heavy metal, whatever you want to call it, but there’s this one drummer, and I forget his name too. It starts with the drums, these drummers are so ferocious; they’re double bass techniques are crazy. I also love the blaring sounds of the bass and guitar. I’m figuring that something like this could translate really well if you add just a few more changes over it and stuff like that. I don’t have any history, I don’t really have any knowledge with music like that, but when I hear it, I’m just like, wow! I don’t know if anybody has done anything like that, but it’s just something I want to do.
When you play, do you ever mess around with heavy metal types of techniques?
I don’t think I could do it from a keyboard perspective, but if I’m sitting down at drums I think I could mess around with it. That’s just coming from a drum rhythm, but not yet so much.
How did the making of both of your albums, Incredible Jazz Vibes and RAW, go down?
I first did Jazz Vibes about four or five years ago. The musicians on that were Mulgrew Miller on piano, Kendrick Scott on drums, and Vicente Archer on bass. I met one of the A&R guys over in Japan doing a tour with Mulgrew, and he wanted us to do a record. I don’t really keep up with that record so much because they didn’t send me a lot of CD’s or anything.
Yeah you can buy it for $50 on the internet.
[Laughs] Yeah it’s an import. It seems like Japan is cut off from the rest of the world in a lot of ways. But I got a good deal on it. Well…kind of a good deal. I think they wanted me to do that CD to build me as a star over there. From what I’ve heard from friends of mine that have gone over to Japan, they were telling me, “Wow man, we went to Tower Records and we saw this dope life-size poster of you.” You know, something like you’d see of an R&B star over here. That record was really only for Japan I guess. Jazz is so well respected over there that I guess they get that type of treatment.
Then RAW is actually a self-produced record; it’s not backed by any record company of anything. Originally the session was intended just to be a drum session because I had already done the Incredible Jazz Vibes. I was thinking I wanted to do a jazz record just with drums. So the first session I went in the studio with Walter Smith, Darren Barrett, Kris Funn on bass, and Lawrence Hill on piano. We laid down some really nice music that night, but there were two songs that I just wasn’t satisfied with. When I went back and took the tapes I liked, it was only thirty minutes of music. I needed some more music, so instead of going back and doing another drum session, I added some vibes so that people could see I’m versatile. So that’s when I went back and did a vibraphone session. I changed the line-up slightly to Peter Slavov on bass, Lawrence stayed, Charles Hanson played drums, and the horns were Jason Palmer and a friend of mine named Plume. I did three or four more songs and it came together as a record. I named it RAW because I was thinking, “Man, these are some of the rawest cats I’ve ever played with.” They’re musical, but they come right at you. They’re straight in your face.
Do you ever mess around with any computer generated drums or beats?
I used to, but honestly it was something I did back in middle school. I fell off though. I would like to get back into it, but not right now.
Who are your main influences musically, either past or present?
First off, just to get it out of the way, I think everybody, good or bad, is an influence on me. You can learn something from everybody. For starters, the main person that always comes to mind is Charlie Parker. Coming up as a child, everybody had that big blue omnibook of Charlie Parker’s transcribed solos. That was a major thing in my playing. Classical music was definitely a major influence in my playing; from Shostakovich to Vivaldi, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, all that type of stuff. I didn’t realize until years later how much that stuff would be used in my playing. Charlie Parker, all the classical composers, Joplin with the ragtime stuff, Miles Davis. There’s a lot of vibraphonists that I’m not saying. Why? Because I never wanted to sound like a vibraphonist. But if I had to name any it would be Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutchinson. Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Clifford Brown, Tony Williams, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, all those guys. Nowadays, Christian McBride, Steven Scott who people may not remember. Essentially the entire ‘90’s movement.
Anyone who you would like to play with or collaborate with?
I would love to get in a playing situation with Chick Corea, but that’s just jazz, there’s a whole other side of music I haven’t even gotten to yet. I’m very much an R&B and hip-hop player too. Shit I would like to do some country, who knows? I’m not interested in the commercial R&B, but people like Anthony Hamilton, Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, D’Angelo, Prince. I would only do it with people who still utilize real musicians, I don’t want to do anything where everything is so synthesized or programmed. That’s not really fun for me. I’d be bored.
If you could have your pick, what instrument would you be playing with them?
That’s a hard one. I would honestly pick drums. Keyboard is cool too, it’d be a close second. Vibraphone would only be like a solo effort. But it’d probably be drums because when you’re playing drums in those types of bands, it seems like you get the freedom to stretch out more. When you’re playing keys you kind of have to stay in the pocket. So, primarily, I’d like to go with drums.
Interview by Eric Sandler