With this eponymous disc on Mack Avenue, Wolf fills a relatively longstanding need in jazz for a high-profile, hard-bop vibraphonist. A protégé of Christian McBride (who repays Wolf’s membership in McBride’s group Inside Straight by handling all the bass duties here), Wolf is the sort of mallet man who leads off this record with a staccato but saucy blues-bop tribute to a jazz club (“427 Mass Ave”), whose granddaddy played jazz in Baltimore in the ’50s, and who enjoys phrasing like a horn player.
Wolf isn’t all about speed and flair. His rendition of Johnny Mandel’s “Emily” is a gorgeous waltz that acknowledges Bill Evans’s penultimate version without imitating it. He can also circumscribe a light bossa nova (“Natural Beauties”), refashion the classic Chick Corea-Gary Burton duo, “Senor Mouse” as an overdubbed vibes-marimbas piece, and mesh with pianist Peter Martin on a pair of ballads, Wolf’s “How I Feel At This Moment,” and Martin’s closing “Intimate Dance,” done as a straight duet.
But Wolf is perhaps most distinctive for his rhythmic acumen, imagination and flat-out chops on uptempo tunes. It could be straight-up, hard-bop toe-tappers like the cruising, melodic “Sweet Bread” that he brought to Bobby Watson’s ensemble and reprises here. It could be the split-second timing and panache with which he and soprano saxophonist Tim Green continually trade solos on Green’s “Eva.” Or it could be the scorching pace the entire ensemble sets on “One For Lenny.” Whatever the tempo, however, Wolf has a soloist’s talent and an ensemble mentality that makes the supporting work from all concerned a source of welcome depth throughout the disc. In that spirit, McBride is dutifully a cog in the wheel most of the way, although fans want to concentrate on the latter songs, such as “Emily” and “Katrina,” where the bassist looses the reins for some riveting solos.