Live Review: Warren Wolf and Aaron Diehl bring the muscle of jazz improvisation to Mozart at An die Musik

A highlight of Baltimore vibraphonist Warren Wolf's "Wolfgang" album last year was the title track. Featuring Wolf's variations on a phrase in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Requiem," the piece was recorded as an unaccompanied duet with pianist Aaron Diehl. If the contrast between Wolf and Diehl reminded one of the Modern Jazz Quartet's vibist Milt Jackson and pianist John Lewis, that was quite intentional.

On Friday evening at An Die Musik Live, Wolf and Diehl recreated that duo arrangement for only the second time in a live performance (the only previous time was last Sunday at Manhattan's Jazz Standard). Wolf, a short, stocky man with a thin goatee and wearing a gray shirt, stood behind his marimba's long, double rows of dark-brown wooden keys. Diehl, a short but slender figure with a bald head, black-frame glasses, and black sweater, sat at the venue's terrific 7-foot-long Mason & Hamlin grand piano.

Diehl began 'Wolfgang' with a left-hand-only figure; Wolf introduced the Mozart quote by making the marimba chime like a harpsichord. Soon the stately 18th-century processional began to swing as both men sifted more and more notes into the mixing bowl. Before long, Wolf's blurring blue-felt mallets hammered out new counterpointed melodies, while Diehl was banging chords with his left hand and rippling through arpeggios with his right. One could hear how a classical quotation could be turned, as easily as blues changes, into a muscular jazz improvisation.

Of course, to pull this off, the musicians have to possess a genuine authority in both the classical and jazz fields. Wolf, schooled at Peabody Prep, the Baltimore School for the Arts, and Boston's Berklee School of Music, has that background, as does Juilliard graduate Diehl. Both men were able to go from the precision of a lovely melody to syncopated inventions of a solo without betraying the shifting of gears.

The first set also included the Modern Jazz Quartet's 'Milano,' pianist Chick Corea's 'Bud Powell,' vibist Red Norvo's 'Red Top' and Louis Armstrong's longtime show-opener 'Indiana.' As they tossed phrases back and forth, Wolf and Diehl displayed an uncanny ability to speed up and slow down at will—often in the same eight-bar passage. They are obviously still figuring out what to do with this unaccompanied duo format, but the potential is great. One can only hope they keep at it.

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