Patrick Wolff has called San Francisco home since 2009, but he keeps a door to New York City wide open.
It’s not that the saxophonist is one of those Gothamites always grousing over how much better the bagels are in Brooklyn, or that he’s always plotting his return to the Big Apple. Rather, Wolff has made it a personal mission to keep the Bay Area connected to the overlapping scenes that have made New York the center of the jazz universe for nearly a century.
Sometimes that’s meant presenting essential East Coast cats who are otherwise unseen in California, like tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart. Last month he assembled a 13-piece Bay Area band for the SFJAZZ Center world premiere of New York saxophone star Chris Potter’s song cycle Sing to Me, “which was a sheer pleasure,” Wolff said.
“It’s the first time he’d written for a big band like that, so he was absorbed in the music, and it was nice to have his trust. At first glance it seemed like this hard Chris Potter music, long compositions with lots of intervallic jumps. But on the concerts, he started playing them, and we just nailed them. His language is complicated but very coherent. It was a great experience.”
Wolff also spent several years devoting an inordinate amount of time to his hour-long KCSM radio show Have You Heard, which offers a deep dive into the lives and music of singular jazz masters, from Amina Claudine Myers and Art Lande to Ellery Eskelin and Clifford Jordan (episodes of which can be heard here). Now functioning like a podcast, Have You Heard is one of the most informative and engaging jazz series available.
Wolff produced some 70 shows from 2015 to 2017 before radio station politics put the kibosh on the project. “It was a lot of work, more work than I ever thought it would be,” he said. “I reached out to everybody who was alive. Once you’re on an email thread with Joachim Kühn, I realized I’d better get this really right.”
His latest endeavor is a talent-packed sextet that debuts this weekend at the Sound Room in Oakland on April 22 and at San Francisco’s Bird & Beckett Books and Records on April 24 (both shows will also be livestreamed). He documented an earlier incarnation of the band in 2011 on two captivating albums, Noose of Light and Your Obedient Ghost, which feature his intricate, intertwining compositions.
His impetus for jumping back into the sextet fray is the Bay Area presence of drummer Gerald Cleaver, who relocated from New York to San Francisco last year when the California Jazz Conservatory hired him as drum department chair. He’s exactly the kind of musician that Wolff treasures, which is to say that Cleaver has honed a personal approach to at least 70 years of evolving jazz idioms, from bebop to spontaneous composition.
“As soon as I heard that Gerald was spending some time here, I thought I’ve got to figure out a way to work with him,” Wolff said. “I’ve been a huge fan of his for years. Pretty much everybody is. When I was in New York, he was on so many gigs and always sounding great. He’s one of my ideal types of players, so schooled in everything. Nothing forced. He just has a way of playing that accepts all of it.”
The new relationship with Cleaver is balanced by Wolff’s longstanding ties with the rest of the sextet, which features powerhouse trumpeter Mike Olmos and reed expert Matt Renzi. Los Gatos-raised pianist Richard Sears, who’s now living in Paris, is back in California for these dates, and the band is anchored by bassist Marcus Shelby. An almost iconic figure on the Bay Area jazz scene who now runs the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, Shelby has long featured Wolff in his big band.
“Patrick is one of my favorite cats,” Shelby said. “When he first joined the band, I didn’t know how good a clarinet player he was. I was putting all this Ellington music together, and you can’t play that music without an elite clarinetist. He stepped right in. I already knew he was a great tenor player. I’ve learned more about his own work over the years, his writing and influences, and I saw him on a higher level as a musician, creator, and composer.”
Wolff’s opportunity to induct Cleaver into his creative world is partly due to the latter’s desire for a change of pace. As ubiquitous as the drummer was in New York clubs, he made his living commuting to Europe, and he was looking for an opportunity to give up the increasingly unpleasant frequent-flyer lifestyle when CJC founder Susan Muscarella came calling. The fact that he already had some deep ties to the Bay Area didn’t hurt.
Cleaver has performed and recorded extensively with Rova saxophonist Larry Ochs in a duo and a trio with Wilco guitar star Nels Cline. He’s also performed often with clarinetist Ben Goldberg, who greeted Cleaver’s arrival by recruiting him for Front Porch Material, a trio that also features guitarist Liberty Ellman (another New Yorker drawn to the Bay Area by a CJC faculty gig).
A Detroit native and son of a jazz drummer, Cleaver grew up playing and loving just about everything the Motor City scene offered. But his musical identity is indelibly tied to the tradition-extending idioms that coalesced in the mid-1960s, an incomplete, if entirely understandable, picture of his aesthetic. Describing his relationship with the mainstream jazz tradition as “dyed-in-the-wool,” he notes that his longstanding relationships with Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and protean bassist William Parker meant he was “known as an outside player. Nobody knew I also played straight ahead. Over the years I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do, and I have made more adventurous choices,” he said.
Cleaver’s quest for a more settled lifestyle is something that Wolff understands. Back in the late aughts, he was looking for an exit strategy from New York City’s rough-and-tumble scene. He found an ideal landing pad as faculty director at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. He’s no longer helping run the summer program, but he continues to teach there.
Raised in upstate New York, Wolff started working professionally at 15 in a big band led by veteran trumpeter Stan Colella. At NYU he studied political science and tried to make his way on the city’s fiercely competitive jazz scene, which turned out to be “a bumpy ride,” he said. “People were not afraid to tell me I wasn’t ready.”
He honed his craft studying with renowned saxophonists like Frank Foster, Ralph Lalama, and George Garzone and toured with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. But he often worked outside of jazz settings too, performing with indie rockers Calexico, Nigerian reggae star Majek Fashek, and Nigerian fuji music legend Adewale Ayuba. Over the past decade, he’s been a key collaborator with Mexican singer-songwriter Diana Gameros.
Feeling hemmed in by the cliquishness of New York, Wolff was ready for a change. The SJW staff position, which he held for five years, facilitated his Gotham departure. And like so many artists before and since, he experienced California’s wide-open scene as a liberation.
“In New York if you don’t have your tribe, you’re getting eaten alive,” Wolff said. “The beboppers hang at Smalls, and the fusion guys at 55 Bar. I just like a lot of different stuff. People make their own identity here. What’s funny is I play more bebop now than I ever did in New York.”
A true student of the tradition, his repertoire extends quite a ways beyond bebop. Like on his radio show, he seeks out overlooked masters and keeps their music in circulation. Playing with his quartet, he’s as likely to cover a tune by pianist Elmo Hope or Lucky Thompson as by Herbie Hancock or Sonny Rollins.
It’s not just that Wolff is exploring paths overlooked by many of his peers. It’s that he’s found highly personal ways to wield his idiosyncratic influences. Drawing harmonic ideas from knotty composers like pianist Andrew Hill and Booker Little and gutbucket improvisers like Sonny Simmons, he combines extended forms with a great deal of freedom, while also drawing on his love of emotionally extroverted traditions like flamenco and tango.
“I try not to think of it as jazz,” Wolff said about his sextet compositions. “The actual orchestrational choices in straight-ahead jazz are fairly limited. Essentially, I try to have a narrative structure in mind, and then maybe double tenor sax with bowed bass and you’ve got a sound you don’t hear on a Dexter Gordon album. I try to write for the musicians. I think that’s something that Duke and Mingus did. You maximize the power of the statement if you keep the players in mind.”
And with Gerald Cleaver in the house, Wolff has radically expanded an already outsized palette.