Pianist Michael Wolff Guests with Bassist Leon Lee Dorsey and Drummer Mike Clark on Evocative Tribute Album A Letter to Bill Evans, out March 8

Jazz Avenue 1 is proud to announce the release of Letter to Bill Evans, an evocative tribute album to the legendary pianist Bill Evans by Leon Lee Dorsey, Mike Clark and Michael Wolff, releasing March 8, 2024.  

For their seventh outing together as a close-knit, collaborative rhythm tandem, bassist Leon Lee Dorsey and drummer Mike Clark tapped pianist Michael Wolff as third man in their ongoing trio adventures. Wolff, who had previously appeared with Dorsey and Clark on 2020’s Play Sgt. Pepper, was indeed the perfect choice to complete the triumvirate on this heartfelt tribute to the late, great pianist-composer known for his contributions to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue as well as his hugely influential trio albums with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. 

Getting Wolff to fill that all-important piano chair on this project was the coup de grǎce, though he was a bit wary at first. “Leon had asked me about doing a Bill Evans album for a while, but I kept putting him off. Bill was so important to me musically and personally that I was hesitant to delve into his music. But after the pandemic, I decided I might as well do whatever music I have the opportunity to do, so the three of us recorded a couple of sessions of music and this is what we came up with.” 

While the music on Letter to Bill Evans captures the spirit of the great pianist, Wolff/Clark/Dorsey take some liberties with this classic Evans material, interpreting it through their collective musical lens. From their bossa flavored rendition of “Gloria’s Step” to their all-out swinging versions of “My Romance,” Peri’s Scope,” “You and the Night and the Music” and “Nardis,” to their elegant readings of “Turn Out the Stars,” “Waltz for Debby” and “Time Remembered,” each underscored by Clark’s near-subliminal brushwork, they put their own stamp on these timeless tunes. Wolff’s nearly two-minute piano intro on “Time Remembered” is a profoundly heartfelt statement while his virtuosic double octave melody lines on “You and the Night and the Music” is an off-the-scale pianistic feat.

For swingers like “Interplay” and “You and the Night and the Music,” Clark channels his drumming hero Philly Joe Jones, who appears along Evans, bassist Percy Heath, guitarist Jim Hall and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard on the 1962 classic, Interplay. Clark’s sublime brushwork on the ballads shows another side of his playing that hasn’t often been showcased. “He is a master of the brushes and can play any time feel with them,” said Wolff. “The way he plays on ‘Turn out the Stars’ is perfect. However he may be known, Mike is a master drummer with a huge vocabulary to draw from, and he can play with his musical point of view on any style of music.”

Clark had equally high praise for his pianistic partner on Letter to Bill Evans. “The idea of using Wolff for this project was easy because he’s a huge harmonic Bill Evans head. Plus, he actually became a friend of Bill’s, so he became a likely candidate. And since we had done the Sgt. Pepper record together, it made sense. At first, he was hesitant because he didn’t want to be compared to Bill Evans. But I told him, ‘We’re not asking you to play like Bill Evans, but let’s do a heartfelt thing for him.’ So we got together and picked the tunes and talked things down. Mike changed some of the chords to fit his mentality and I had to refresh my memory of the material and kind of ended up doing my version of what I would do if I were playing with Bill Evans. I mean, I wouldn’t play it like Paul Motian, I just play it like I play it. And I really dig this record. I really listened to it critically and I like what’s going on. I think it really swings.”

These renderings of Bill Evans classics contain the kind of sparkling energy and improvisational freshness that always animates these trio sessions between Dorsey, Clark and their third partner. And this time around they hit on the perfect choice with pianist Wolff, who had internalized the music deeply decades ago. “I first heard Bill Evans when I was 15 years old,” he explained. “I was in the tenth grade at Berkeley High in Berkeley, California, when my piano teacher, Dick Whittington, brought me a record to listen to. It was Bill Evans’ Live at the Village Vanguard, and it changed my life. I became obsessed with Bill’s music from that point on and got as many albums as I could, trying to play along with them sometimes. Then I first heard Bill live at Davies Hall in San Francisco when I was 18. The only tickets available were actually on the stage, so I got to experience the concert close up. A few years later, when I was 20, I went on the road with Cal Tjader and ran into Bill a lot in various cities where we all were playing. I befriended him and, of course, hounded him for information about his music. He was very open and understanding with me. And whenever he was performing in the Bay Area, I would go hear him every night. Then after the gig I would drive him to our favorite late-night diner, Pam Pam, where we’d have an early breakfast and discuss music. He was a mentor before I knew the word ‘mentor’.”

Wolff’s connection with Clark, who is also concurrently celebrating his 50th anniversary as a member of The Headhunters, goes back to the late ‘60s on the Bay Area jazz scene. “I was house pianist with Bishop Norman Williams’ Sunday afternoon jam at a great SF club called the Both/And,” he recalled. “I was 17 years old and still in high school, I wasn’t old enough to get into most clubs then. But I had this gig and Mike came by one Sunday to sit in. And that was the beginning of a long working relationship. The chemistry that Mike Clark and I have has to do with the energy we both possess. We both play on instinct and impulsiveness. So we feed off of and inspire the other. Mike always excites me when we play together, and he challenges me. It’s a fantastic relationship, musically and personally.”  

Added Clark, “We met when we were both very young. After I moved to New York in 1979 — he had moved here a year earlier than me — we both began gigging with Nat Adderley in the early ‘80s at places like Fat Tuesday and Visiones. More recently, I’ve played and recorded with Michael’s band Impure Thoughts and I also played on his 2021 recording, Live @ Vitello’s.” We also formed the Wolff & Clark Expedition and put out two recordings.”

And with A Letter to Bill Evans, their musical exploration continues. 

 

Tracklist:

  1. Gloria’s Step
  2. My Romance
  3. Time Remembered 
  4. Peri’s Scope
  5. Interplay
  6. Waltz for Debby
  7. Turn Out The Stars
  8. Nardis
  9. You and the Night and the Music

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