Sunday, May 28 - Time: 2:10PM - 3:25PM
‘Paradise,’ an album about longing and desire and the ways in which the pursuit of fulfillment can keep it perpetually out of our reach, is The Wood Brothers’ most sophisticated work to date and also their most rocking, with bassist Chris Wood playing electric on tracks for the first time. Recorded at Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye studio in Nashville, ‘Paradise’ captures the latest chapter in the ongoing evolution of a band—and a family—navigating the joy and challenges of a life in music.
Dubbed “masters of soulful folk” by Paste, The Wood Brothers released their debut studio album, ‘Ways Not To Lose,’ on Blue Note in 2006. You’d be forgiven at the time for expecting it to be something of a side project. Chris Wood already had legions of devoted fans for his incomparable work as one-third of Medeski Martin & Wood, while his brother Oliver toured with Tinsley Ellis before releasing a half-dozen albums with his band King Johnson. Almost a decade later and with drummer Jano Rix added as a permanent third member, it’s become quite clear that The Wood Brothers is indeed the main act.
‘Paradise’ follows the band’s acclaimed 2013 release ‘The Muse,’ which was recorded almost entirely live around a tree of microphones in Zac Brown’s Southern Ground studio. Hailed previously by the New York Times for their “gripping” vocals and by the LA Times for their “taught musicianship,” the live setting proved to be a remarkable showcase for the brothers’ live chemistry and charismatic magnetism. Taking a different approach to their sixth studio album, the decision to record in Nashville was no coincidence, as ‘Paradise’ marks the first album written with the entire band living in Music City.
Chris Wood developed his extraordinary bass chops studying with some of the finest players in jazz, and he keeps honing them in the improvisational laboratory that is the genre-busting trio Medeski Martin & Wood. But his musical sensibility was forged in his Colorado childhood – and the influence of his youthful immersion in song continues to reverberate in his work.
His father, a molecular biologist, had attended Harvard in the ’50s and been part of the folk scene in Cambridge, Mass. He’d played with Joan Baez and had a college radio show, and years later, with his poet wife and two sons as his audience, he’d play guitar and sing. “Having the experience of live music at your house is pretty important,” reflects Wood, who – along with his equally impressionable brother, Oliver – imbibed murder ballads, heartsick blues and stirring protest songs at his father’s feet. Later on, the brothers started exploring pop music on their own, falling under the sway of the Beatles, the Who and the Doors. “But then we started tracing it back to American roots and blues,” Wood recalls. “My brother got records by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King – and the sounds they got were so different from what was going on around us in the ’80s.” In contrast to the trebly, thin tones dominating pop music at the time, he found the vibe and sonic richness of these vintage recordings irresistible. “They had a roundness, a warmth, a mystery,” he recalls. “The sounds were very African. I just kept going in that direction.” Jazz drew him in from the time he began studying music. His earliest clarinet and piano playing gravitated toward those round, rich sounds, and his teachers encouraged him to explore the form.
“I remember getting this cassette that had Stan Getz on one side and Thelonious Monk on the other,” he relates. “At first I related to Getz much more, but at some point I started spending more time listening to the Monk side.” The strange blue notes Monk played felt somewhat unpleasant at the outset, he acknowledges, “and then they became very pleasant.”
He headed off to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory of Music, but after attending for a semester as a full-time student dropped back to part-time – and then focused on private lessons and ensemble playing. Among his teachers were bassist Dave Holland, sax player George Garzone, trumpeter John McNeil, drummer Bob Moses and piano great Geri Allen. “They all had their specialties,” Wood recalls of his illustrious instructors. “George specialized in musical lines. Dave Holland and I played a lot of duets and traded solos; I learned more from that – just watching him play and then giving it a go – than from almost anything.” But his work with Allen may have presented the greatest challenge. “Geri was incredible,” he notes. “At first she had me transcribing Mingus solos, things like that. But then she’d just tell me to improvise for an entire session, and she’d watch. Every lesson was a rite of passage, because every weakness was exposed. It was terrifying, and there was nowhere to hide. I was constantly humbled, but that’s how you grow.”
Bob Moses brought Chris in for a session in Boston, where he met a keyboardist named John Medeski. “He was a madman,” the bassist remembers. “He was just a monster on piano and he had this incredible, free, open spirit. It was inspiring to be around.” The admiration was mutual. “He was technically so solid,” Medeski says. “I felt this kinship with him, rhythmically and energetically. He was young and wide open; he could do anything you showed him, and then he’d remember it, even if you didn’t.”
Their bond deepened as they collaborated, and soon Medeski suggested they share a place in New York and seek their musical fortunes there. Much jamming, listening and conversation ensued. “John had this massive record collection,” Chris points out, “so I was able to study his influences.” Soon they were playing regular engagements at the Village Gate. Though disenchanted by the mainstream jazz scene – “It was very limiting,” Wood notes – the pair were drawn strongly to the irreverently inventive downtown arts scene. “Everyone was searching for something new,” he says of that loose affiliation of cultural explorers. “Not everything worked, but when you’d succeed, beautiful things happened.” The scene’s supportive, adventurous ethos would prove crucial as the bassist and pianist developed their own project.
They tried multiple drummers for the Village Gate gigs, but it wasn’t until they collaborated with Billy Martin, who was also part of Bob Moses’ circle, that things really clicked. “We could be playing the same tunes we’d played with other drummers, but the feel was completely different,” Wood says. “I’d play a walking bass line and he wouldn’t necessarily be swinging. He was playing interactively, like a jazz drummer would, but not in a jazz style. Billy brought a real love of hip-hop to the band. As the youngest guy, I was just trying to soak up everything he and John already knew.”
Medeski Martin & Wood spent a lot of time jamming in New York, then gigging locally and regionally. Their first few albums helped them attract a rabid fan base that extended beyond jazz to include jam-band and rock listeners, hip-hop and funk devotees and lovers of international rhythms. Their debut album, Notes From the Underground – initially circulated on cassette – was released in 1992.
Alternating between stand-up and electric basses (including a Hofner bass guitar, made famous by Paul McCartney) and constantly experimenting with his sound – he occasionally slides paper behind his strings for a “snare” effect, for example – Wood has found a supple balance between spacious grooving and fierce improvisation.
“We manage to humble each other quite a bit,” he says of playing with MMW. “There’s no room for ego stuff or showing off. It’s very collaborative, and whatever you’re doing, you’re trying to add to the music – to make something better.”
Wood credits the band’s lengthy trips to Hawaii, which spawned the breakthrough album Shackman (1996), with helping them find the next level. “We played in this plywood shack in Hilo on the big island, surrounded by mango trees, and we explored a lot of grooves, just letting things sit,” he says. “In New York there’s always this anxiousness to get to the next thing. But in Hawaii we got rid of that and learned to let the thing be itself, to create more space in the music.” Thanks to some solar panels (“We’d spend the day letting the batteries charge and go swimming,” he relates), the band was able to record Shack-man in these lush environs.
Over the years, the band – working on various labels, including legendary jazz outlet Blue Note and their own Indirecto imprint – has constantly pushed the recording process in new directions. They’ve made both acoustic and electric live records; collaborated with adventurous producers, engineers and mixers; brought in guest musicians and DJs; explored children’s music; and built a box set of material created while on tour (2009’s mammoth Radiolarians set, which includes a film about the band, Fly in a Bottle).
Their live performances, meanwhile, continue to be a magnet for jazz heads, groove maniacs and party people alike, and they’ve expanded their reach continually by backing up other artists and pursuing all manner of side projects. “Working with other people helps keep it alive, because we bring fresh energy to the group,” Wood reasons. As MMW’s 20th anniversary loomed, he and his bandmates prepared a slate of special events and reassessments of classic material.
But Wood’s already busy schedule has also embraced a project that had been brewing his whole life: The Wood Brothers, the duo he formed with Oliver. His brother had spent his adult life in the south, but they reconnected musically after Oliver’s band, King Johnson, opened for MMW. “He sat in with us during our set,” Wood remembers, “and it was a creepy experience, like watching myself. He had a lot of the same impulses I did. Part of it was influences; part of it was blood.”
The brother band allowed the pair to explore the roots influences that had been at the core of their musical lives. With Oliver on guitar and lead vocals and Chris on bass, harmonica and highlonesome harmonies, the duo evokes the classic sounds of blues, folk and country. “It’s such a great situation, and Chris really gets to explore, tap into stuff from his childhood,” notes John Medeski, who produced two Brothers albums. The Wood Brothers finished Smoke Ring Halo, produced by Jim Scott, in 2010, and joined roots-rock phenom Zac Brown on tour.
“Writing songs with my brother is really different,” Chris says. “It’s full circle; my mom was a poet and words were really important to her. Getting back to singing is fun – I did it a lot as a kid and in school but somehow ended up in an instrumental band.”
Whether he’s making vocal or instrumental music, though, Chris Wood always makes it sing. And he’s always seeking ways to take his work to a new place. “The more you accept who you are, the freer you are to express that,” he muses. “Your bag of tricks as a player is a doorway to infinite possibilities.”
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Oliver Wood forms one half of the roots-music duo the Wood Brothers. On their three albums, the pair have refined a soulful blend of blues, folk, back-porch funk and other forms built largely on the foundation of Oliver’s guitar and his brother Chris’ stand-up bass. Oliver’s earthy vocals and sturdy compositions have helped the band gain a substantial fan base and rapturous reviews.
“Oliver is an unbelievable songwriter and a great musician and singer,” says producer-musician John Medeski, who helmed the Brothers’ first two albums (and is Chris Wood’s bandmate in Medeski Martin & Wood). “I can’t tell you how many of his songs I thought were traditional standards. They sound like old classics, but they’re originals. His songwriting is deep.” That depth originates in the childhood of the Wood boys, who watched their dad (a molecular biologist by profession and an unstoppable folkie in his spare time) sing for anyone who’d listen – by the campfire, at family gatherings or in the living room of their Boulder, Colorado, home. “It all started with us just listening to him, and then with us singing along sometimes,” he recalls. “At some point, I got really interested in the guitar.”
Though his dad didn’t teach him to play, he did buy Oliver a guitar – and provided the most potent inspiration. “As I got into his record collection, I thought, ‘Wow, I could play some of that stuff,’” he remembers. This treasury of platters included folk, bluegrass and country, he notes, “But what really captivated me was the blues – Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed especially. I was really attracted to the guitar playing and the singing; the way those old players expressed themselves on guitar came directly from the way they sang. The melodies and little riffs were influenced by the vocals and vocal phrasing.”
As he immersed himself in music – the Beatles’ peerless songcraft, Bob Dylan’s folk-based immediacy, the gigantic blues-derived riffage of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin – Wood became obsessed with the guitar. “I was always too shy to sing back then,” he relates. “Chris was more of a singer than I was; we played together a little as teenagers and he encouraged me to sing, but it was god-awful. Just hideous.”
His passion for playing only deepened, however; his greatest influences, as he became an adept musician, were electric bluesmen like “the Kings” (B.B., Albert and Freddie) and Albert Collins. “It still has the electricity of rock, but it’s more primitive,” he says of this brand of blues. “It’s plugged in and rockin’, but it’s more emotional. And the guitar sings like a voice.” Although he admits to a period of infatuation with bebop and other complex jazz forms, Wood says he “came full circle,” back to the 12-bar embrace of the blues. And after a brief period at University of California at Santa Cruz, he packed up and followed some musician friends to Atlanta. There he gigged for a time as the guitarist in a band covering Motown and other R&B classics (“I was just happy to be playing anything,” he volunteers). That band lasted barely a year, but he continued pursuing any and all musical opportunities. A weekly gig at beloved local eatery Fat Matt’s Rib Shack enabled him to further develop his chops. “I always got in with older players I could learn from,” he points out.
Wood’s first true immersion in the life of a working musician came when blues singer-guitarist Tinsley Ellis invited him into his band. “He’d been touring since the ’70s and was a real workhorse,” he explains. “He was a real mentor in music in the business. I got exposed to living in vans and hotels and playing every night for not very much money.” He spent two years on the road with Ellis, who pushed Wood to the microphone. “He said, ‘OK, you’re gonna sing one song a night. He gave me Freddie King’s ‘See See Baby,’” the musician recalls. “He also encouraged me to write my own songs; that where I got the fire to start doing my own thing.”
Inspired to form his own group – and now grounded in, as he puts it, “the songwriting process, singing, the mechanics of touring and how it works” – Wood launched King Johnson with his bass-playing friend Chris Long. The band was named for blues legends “the Kings” and “the Johnsons” (Robert, Lonnie, et al). At this point, though, he decided to expand his stylistic palette. “To be a middle-class white guy playing blues – something never felt quite right about it,” he admits. “You can’t really get your own identity from it, and it’s already been done better. But the blues are great as a foundation.” Atop this bedrock he and Long added more diverse influences, from the New Orleans grooves of the Meters and Little Feat to the timeless country tunefulness of Hank Williams. “Our songwriting got way out of the blues box,” he notes.
King Johnson was a labor of love, but it lasted more than a dozen years, during which time the band issued five records and toured nationally (with an emphasis on the South). Eventually the lineup expanded to a six-piece, including horns and percussion.
It was during a gig in Winston-Salem, N.C., opening for his brother’s acclaimed instrumental jazz-groove outfit Medeski Martin & Wood, that Oliver Wood got a glimpse of his future. Sitting in with MMW, he found a remarkable chemistry – particularly with his brother, despite the fact that they’d been on separate musical paths for some 15 years. “It was a creepy experience, like watching myself,” Chris Wood recalls. “He had a lot of the same impulses I did. Part of it was influences and part was blood.”
With their blood and their influences on their side, Oliver and Chris Wood played together at a family reunion some years later, and were both struck by the evocative sounds they produced. “Chris had a recording rig, so we jammed for a couple of days and recorded it.” A tune came out of the process, and Oliver took Chris’ tapes, wrote some lyrics, and finished it. “Then Chris said, ‘Send me a bunch of your songs and I’ll learn ’em, and we’ll record those next time,’” he adds. “So we did that and made a demo, just for fun.” This handful of stripped-down recordings, featuring Oliver on guitar and lead vocals and Chris on upright bass and backups, was the blueprint for the Wood Brothers’ sound.
“We had complementary strengths when we started,” Oliver recalls. “I had these songs and could sing and play ’em well, and Chris could make them sound completely cool and unique. Instead of a typical band situation, you had this incredible upright bass.” Their demo stunned MMW’s manager, who passed it along to Blue Note. The Wood Brothers were signed in short order. After releasing a live EP recorded at the club Tonic in New York in 2005, the brothers began work on their debut album, Ways Not to Lose. Produced by John Medeski and released by Blue Note in 2006, the collection earned effusive praise from roots aficionados. They followed up with the 2008 set Loaded, also produced by Medeski.
The band had been playing theaters and clubs for several years, so it was an adjustment when Grammy-winning roots-rocker Zac Brown invited them on tour – suddenly the Wood Brothers (with drummer Tyler Greenwell) were playing for crowds as large as 20,000. It was a learning experience. “It can be a challenge, when the audience isn’t there to see you and you’re used to these intimate rooms,” Oliver avers. “But when you choose the right material and perform it the right way, you can connect.” Brown also included the Woods in his set.
Brown released the pair’s 2011 album, Smoke Ring Halo, on his Southern Ground label. Produced and engineered by studio vet Jim Scott (Johnny Cash, Tom Petty), the disc offered an array of new songs and sounds. “There are some really exciting, dynamic things happening with rhythms we haven’t tried before,” says Oliver. “It’s the latest evolution of our sound.” Despite all that evolution, though, Oliver Wood’s guitar, voice and songs are still rooted in the great traditions that first captivated him as a child – and now keep his fans spellbound.