When Warren Wolf starts his Saturday-afternoon set at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, complex polyrhythms and dissonant melodies will be far from his mind. The vibraphonist, who is steeped in the modern-jazz tradition and often plays straight-ahead acoustic music, will be more concerned with getting the audience to dance.
“We’re definitely a jazz group; we can do the whole traditional-jazz thing,” Wolf said during a recent telephone interview. “There’s a lot of jazz music out nowadays that’s just totally — it’s music that makes you think. We’re just going out and trying to have fun.”
Wolf and his latest group, WOLFPAC — Wolf on vibes, Allyn Johnson on piano and Fender Rhodes electric piano, Lyle Link on saxophone and Lee Pearson on drums — will perform Saturday at 7 p.m., with special guest Christian McBride on bass.
Wolf isn’t a household name even to dedicated jazz fans. Though he has released four albums under his own name, instead of touring with his own band, he’s spent a lot of his young career performing in other people’s groups: McBride’s Inside Straight and combos led by Bobby Watson and Karriem Riggins. Wolf said he thinks of himself as both a leader and a sideman, but that he prefers to be in charge — kind of.
“On the music side, yes; on the business side of things, no,” he said about organizing his own groups. “I like to do my job and get on stage. That’s the easy part.”
In August, Mack Avenue Records will release “Warren Wolf,” his major-label debut, which he called “a hard-core jazz record.” For the date, Wolf lined up McBride, drummer Gregory Hutchinson and pianist Peter Martin; horn players Tim Greene and Jeremy Pelt add even more straight-ahead bona fides to the recording.
“I have so many different types of music I like to play, but we wanted to just put my stamp on the world,” Wolf said. “This is who I am.”
Knowing his audience is important to the vibraphonist, who sees the Atlanta Jazz Festival crowd as casual listeners looking mainly to relax and hear accessible music. To echo the party atmosphere of the event, Wolf will ask McBride, who usually performs acoustically, to play electric bass, and the group will perform tunes that blend toward fusion.
Jazz festivals around the world have been moving toward smooth jazz, but Wolf draws a distinct line between fusion and jazz-lite, arguing that grouping smooth jazz, and even pop music, under the “jazz” moniker is hurting the genre. He pointed to the North Sea Jazz Festival, where Prince will be headlining, and the R&B-heavy St. Lucia Jazz Festival as examples of a trend toward moving straight-ahead music to the fringes of jazz festivals. Calling these concerts jazz shows, he said, is disingenuous.
“It does confuse people. When people say ‘jazz’ nowadays, most people think smooth jazz like Kenny G., Boney James, Walter Beasley — all those type of cats.”
This uncertainty about what defines jazz makes his job more difficult. Wolf believes musicians need to bring new life to the music by incorporating popular genres without diluting the jazz genre’s defining characteristics. By turning to fusion for a day, that’s what this artist hopes to accomplish.
“It’s important to change,” he said, “and add today’s music into jazz.”