When I was playing piano with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, I was a young musician of 22. I had already spent two years as the pianist and keyboardist with the great Latin Jazz vibist Cal Tjader, and I then spent a year playing piano and keyboards in the band of Brazilian musicians Airto Moreira and Flora Purim. These had been fantastic experiences for me, and I learned a ton from each gig. While I was with Cal Tjader I learned to play Latin montunos on the piano - repetitive chordal licks that laid down the harmony and the various dance rhythms. Cal also taught me a lot of harmony and chord voicings, and ways to play more complicated songs such as "Lush Life." With Airto, I learned all about modern Brazilian music and percussion, and I got a lot of "on the job" training playing in odd meters. We played a fast song in 7/4 and Airto told me, “ We’ll play the time, you just worry about the harmony and the sounds.”

When I started playing with Cannonball, I was playing in the midst of a whirlwind of sound and rhythm. The intensity and excitement every night was mind-blowing and overwhelming. The band was a ferocious locomotive, from the first downbeat to the last dying note. There was nothing set for me to play. I figured out the keys and chords and structures of each piece, and then I needed to figure out the colors and rhythmic approaches for each. I was playing the music of my dreams. My two favorite bands had always been Miles Davis’ and Cannonball’s.

One night when we were playing at a great club in Philadelphia called Just Jazz, I had an epiphany. The band was playing at its usual high level, and I suddenly saw an imaginary gigantic round circle above my head on the ceiling, like a pie. I could see how much space within the circle each instrument was taking up. It was as if each instrument was occupying one of the slices of the pie, and the volume and intensity of the sound and ideas determined the size of that instrument’s slice.

At the moment I saw all that, I realized I should only play when there was space in the pie for my playing - my sounds, my rhythms, my musical ideas. If there was a little space, I played a little. If there was a bigger space, I could play more. If the space was all filled-up, I simply didn’t play at all. And it all felt and sounded great. That was the beginning of me understanding and being able to perform within the “big picture” of the music.

Here are some things the cats taught me, and what I figured out for myself.

1. Don't Overplay

When playing in a group, make sure to listen to and feel the presence of every other sound in the band. There are times when not much is happening and it’s time to play more, to reinforce the rhythm or harmony, and/or to add melody and color to the music. There are other times when just one chord is perfect, or maybe one short melodic phrase, or a sound from an electric keyboard. And remember, it’s sometimes perfect to not play anything at all. Listen to Herbie Hancock’s comping on some of Miles Davis’ later '60s records. Sometime Herbie doesn’t play at all.

2. Let the Band Play You

We always feel we have to play our stuff and show what we can do, or perhaps we’re not sure what to do and are feeling insecure about where we stand in a musical situation. It’s always a good idea to let the other musicians determine what you should play by what they’re playing. Just concentrate (even close your eyes), and wait until some impulse forces you to play something. Then play it. It is a great feeling to be in such sync with the music and the other musicians that you are observing the music flow from your instrument almost unconsciously. Suddenly, you’re under no pressure. Just let them play you!

3. When Soloing, Have a Structure and Let It Build

Early on when I was with Cannonball’s band, I would start my electric piano solos using all the outboard effects I had. I ‘d crank up the ring modulator, have the phase shifter all the way up, and utilize the Echoplex to make spacey sounds. I loved how that all sounded.(Today, you just use synths and/or software for those sounds). One day the trumpeter Nat Adderley pulled me aside and said, “Wait for all that electronic stuff to come at the climax of your solo. Begin your solo with a small musical idea on the keyboard, then develop that. Get bigger and bigger, and when you’re ready, kick in the wild sounds.” That was some of the greatest advice I ever received. I was able to create solos that had real meaning as well as excitement, and bring the audience along with me to those ending crazy sounds. And this concept works on acoustic piano just as well as on electronic keyboards. Start with a little idea, develop it, and build it up.

4. When Listening to Music, Think About What’s UNDERNEATH It

What’s the feeling underneath the music you are listening to? Is it a mood, an idea, a propulsive forward leaning piece, or a laid-back contemplative piece? Think about using words to describe the feelings and ideas of the music to help you get inside of it. Also, think about what the musicians playing it and composing it may be influenced by. When I started listening to Chick Corea, I could hear Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, and Maurice Ravel, and Joaquin Rodrigo, to name a few musicians and composers who I think may have influenced his sound. I went back and listened to all of them as a way to get into what Chick was doing. I’ve never discussed his influences with him, but I used my ear to see what I could find to study. It made the music I was listening to richer and deeper.

5. When You’re Playing Music, Have Fun!

It’s easy to get caught up practicing and studying and feeling serious and worried while studying music. The the fact is, music is fun. You play music, you don’t work it! So when performing or just sitting down to your instrument, make sure to let yourself go and just play play play. You don’t have to know what you’re going to play ahead of time. Just see what you come up with and enjoy what comes out. It’s never going to be that bad! The experience of playing is joyful, and you have to remember to let it be that. Study and experience are ways to program yourself so that you can always be a professional. I think a professional always plays at about 80 percent capacity. But that extra 20 percent comes from inspiration and magic. Make sure to allow yourself to experience those things. It makes it all worthwhile.


Pianist and composer Michael Wolff has worked with artistic luminaries like Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Rollins and Nancy Wilson. In 1989 he began a five-year run as the music director for The Arsenio Hall Show. Wolff's new trio recording "Swirl" was just released on the Sunnyside label following his triumphant battle with cancer. Find-out more at www.michaelwolff.com