Family ties: Wood brothers find common ground
December 5, 2008
ASPEN About six years ago, at a gig in Winston-Salem, Medeski, Martin & Wood were joined onstage by a member of the opening act, King Johnson. It didnt look to be the most natural pairing: MMW, an instrumental outfit centered in downtown Manhattan, were known as hardcore experimentalists, infusing the jazz organ trio with doses of industrial, space-age and funky sounds. King Johnson came from Georgia, and their song-oriented music, based on blues structures, reflected that geography. But the two sides clicked instantly, and the guest guitarist ended up sitting in for most of the set.I was surprised, said MMW bassist Chris Wood of the collaboration. But at the same time, thinking, Of course, of course it worked.Woods after-the-fact confidence stems from the fact that he and King Johnsons guitarist share a same last name, and the same set of parents. Of equal importance, Chris and Oliver Wood shared a record collection while they were growing up, in Boulder. So while the two went seemingly very separate ways Chris to New York and heavily improvised music; Oliver to the South and traditional song forms they brought with them virtually the same history.I know it seems like that on the surface, said Chris, of the idea that he and his brother now live on distant sides of the musical spectrum. But when it comes down to it, we had listened to the same stuff growing up. Our record collections contained the same stuff here he runs down a list that includes blues, R&B, jazz and 60s rock acts too numerous to mention.But we ended up in different places, and they just got expressed differently. And where the real difference came in, in MMW we were highly influenced by contemporary classical and avant-jazz. And folk music from all over the world. So rhythmically, there was a whole other feel.Being grounded in the same music can remain a powerful force, even after decades of absorbing separate influences and experiences. At least it is for the Wood brothers or make that, the Wood Brothers, the duo that Chris and Oliver formed some three years ago. The Wood Brothers have released a pair of outstanding CDs 2006s Ways Not to Lose, and this years Loaded that show that, despite different temperaments, different geographical homes, different stylistic histories, the artistic blood between the Woods is thick.When we played together, there was this family, blood connection, said Chris, speaking from his home in Saugerties, N.Y., not far from Woodstock, and some 60 miles north of Manhattan. I recognized myself in his playing. It was almost uncanny, how recognizable it was, his style. I hadnt been onstage with him before, but it was immediate. I just knew it would be easy to make music together.
MMW is in the midst of its latest project, titled Radiolarians, which is intended to yield three CDs. Each segment of the series starts with a four- or five-day writing session, with the goal of writing music quickly and efficiently. The get-togethers are followed by a tour in a different part of the country, in which the new music gets fleshed out and tightened up. The trio then heads into the studio to record the material. Radiolarians I was released in September; volume two is recorded but not yet released. The tour for volume three was completed last week. The first installment is perfectly consistent with MMWs track record: unpredictable, wide-ranging, open-ended.The Radiolarians series caps an ambitious year for MMW. Their other 2008 projects include a childrens album, Lets Go Everywhere; and Zaebos, in which they play composer John Zorns Jewish-inspired music.The music Wood plays with his brother is meant to go against all of those grains. In the Wood Brothers, the music is rooted and structured, with vocals out front Oliver usually on lead, with Chris providing background singing. When the brothers began contemplating forming a group, soon after that North Carolina jam, they didnt know exactly how the sound would shape up.But we knew what we were not going to play. That was obvious, said Chris. I knew that, with Oliver, I wanted to do something that wasnt grooving or jammy, would never be confused with that. And I love songs. I love singing. I just havent done it in a long time.MMW was formed out of a 1991 jam session among Wood and keyboardist John Medeski, who had met in Boston during the formers brief stint at the New England Conservatory of Music and drummer Billy Martin. The three were devoted to a kind of music outside the popular realm. But when the jam-band Phish began playing MMW recordings during set breaks at their concerts, the trio became accidentally popular.MMW had been attached, unwittingly, to this jam-band scene, said Wood, and had been pigeonholed and that was surreal for us. When were up onstage, the musicians were thinking of are [Charles] Mingus, Sun Ra, and somehow we ended up with an audience thinking Jerry Garcia and Trey Anastasio. It was weird.One thing that MMW and the Wood Brothers seem to have in common is a commitment to not being static. On the debut Ways Not to Lose, recorded soon after Chris and Oliver began performing as a duo, the music is stripped way down. Drummer Kenny Wollesen plays drums and percussion on several tracks; otherwise its all Chris on bass, Oliver on guitar, and the two singing, on soulful blues tunes, most of them written by Oliver. Loaded, while still tightly focused on song structures, is far more expansive. Produced, as was Ways Not to Lose, by Medeski, Loaded features string sections, steel guitar, drums by Billy Martin, and vocal contributions from Amos Lee and others. Pray Enough is foot-stomping gospel; a take on Jimi Hendrixs Angel has a reggae-lite feel. Most of the songs were co-written by the brothers Chris sings lead on Dont Look Back, which he wrote himself.While the Wood Brothers have toured only as a duo including a concert two summers ago at the Snowmass Village Chili & Brew Fest Chris says he could see the group expanding in size.
The unnamed person in the Wood Brothers mix seems to be Bill Wood. Chris and Olivers father was a microbiologist by trade, but had things fallen a little differently, he might have been a folksinger. The elder Wood played the Boston and Cambridge coffeehouses in the late 50s and early 60s that were as much the center of the folk revival as Greenwich Village. He experienced the same direct influences, including Josh White, as Bob Dylan, and sang with a very young Joan Baez.In a way, the stuff Im doing with my brother comes full circle to my childhood, said Chris.Chris Wood, younger than his brother by a few years, was actually the one who sang as a kid, in choir, while Oliver was holed up in his room practicing guitar. And Oliver got the first bass in the family but he quickly handed it down to his brother. Once the bass was in Chris hands, the paths were pretty much set. Oliver, laid-back and less ambitious, made his way South. Chris more intense, an intellectual, a Yankee type, said Oliver in a 2006 interview with The Aspen Times fell for jazz. I immediately thought, New York City thats where Im going to end up, said Chris. First, though, came a stop in Boston, where he studied with jazz bass great Dave Holland.Over the years, the Wood brothers didnt have a whole lot of contact, touching base at family reunions. But the Winston-Salem experience showed them how close they were, at least musically.He just got it, recalled Chris. Theres something about Oliver; he had the understanding of what we were doing. But he also added the Southern blues side of it. The edginess of what we do, but also the laid-back, soul side of it.Thats the beauty of music: Take the same music and put it in a different background and it will come out differently, depending on where you firstname.lastname@example.org