Wood Brothers: from the same roots, different routes
ASPEN – When Oliver Wood sat in with Medeski, Martin & Wood at a club gig in North Carolina about a decade ago, it didn’t seem like the most natural fit. Wood was the singer, songwriter and guitarist for King Johnson, a band that specialized in rootsy rock with a Southern accent. MMW was an avant-jazz trio with no singer, no songs, but an aggressive take on the groove-oriented keyboard trio.But there were deeper things going on beneath the stylistic differences. Oliver didn’t share just a last name with one of the members of Medeski, Martin & Wood, but a family. Oliver and MMW bassist Chris Wood are brothers, who grew up in Boulder on the ’50s-era folk songs their father sang, as well as blues and gospel, soul singers from Ray Charles to James Brown, jazz guys Charles Mingus and Jimmy McGriff. From those roots, the two took different routes – Oliver to Georgia and Southern soul; Chris to the Northeast and cutting-edge jazz. The two hadn’t been especially close through the years, and had never intersected on a musical level. But onstage in North Carolina, there was an audible click.”We had this moment,” Chris said from Nashville, where Oliver now lives, and where they were working on songs for the next album by their band, the Wood Brothers. “He was great, fit in so naturally with the band. It felt so familiar. Almost like me, and the way I played. It was surprising, and not. I hadn’t thought about it, but when it happened, it was ‘Yes, of course.’ And not just me, but I could see John and Billy” – keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Billy Martin – “feeling the same way.”It wasn’t just a moment; Chris could see there was a future in collaborating with his brother. But MMW was still in the building stage of their career, and signed to the prominent jazz label Blue Note. So it was a few years before the Wood brothers got around to becoming the Wood Brothers. But a family vacation in Vermont was close enough to Chris’ home in Saugerties, N.Y. that Chris was able to haul some recording equipment with him. The two rearranged some of Oliver’s tunes and knew it would work out.The group debuted with “Ways Not to Lose,” a 2006 album of folk-blues that proved that there was a comfortable meeting ground between the siblings. Since then, the group has stayed in growth mode. Three more studio albums followed: “Loaded,” from 2008; “Up Above My Head,” which expanded the palette by including covers of tunes by the Beatles and Beck; and 2011’s “Smoke Ring Halo,” which introduced horns, drums and more. Since May of last year, they have released a pair of live album, including “Nail and Tooth,” which came out Tuesday.Two years ago, the Wood Brothers added its first non-Wood member, drummer Jano Rix, who also sings and plays a bit of melodica. They have played arenas as the opening act for country star the Zac Brown Band. Their latest tour, which runs into early November, stops on Saturday (9 p.m.) at Belly Up Aspen.Chris says that the initial coming together with his brother led him to think that things would move even quicker. “Honestly, I was hoping it would go a little faster,” he said. “But when we started, the record company tanked, the economy tanked, everything tanked. It was hard to get it going. With the benefit of hindsight I see that MMW happened real fast, how relatively easy that was. This past decade has been much tougher for musicians to make things happen.”Having devoted a considerable part of the last seven years to the Wood Brothers, Chris sees with more and more clarity how close the musical ties are between him and Oliver, and how those similarities have been taken in differing directions. “There’s a lot of the same influences, just manifested a lot differently. I’d say 50 percent of the influences between me and Oliver are the same,” Chris, who studied in Boston with jazz bassist Dave Holland for a while, said. “But because MMW is from New York, we get a jazz, avant-garde thing that happens to those influences. The environment of creating a band in New York City is a lot different than creating one in Atlanta. Something different comes out.”Chris says his style of playing isn’t all that different in his two bands. But given the varying contexts of the Wood Brothers and MMW, it can seem as if it’s two very distinct approaches. “In an Americana setting, it can seem very avant-garde. In the context of a New York jazz setting, you might not blink an eye,” he said.In the Wood Brothers, Chris shares the writing chores with his brother, and does some of the singing. Given the wide range of his musical abilities, he wouldn’t mind exploring even more outlets for his expression. He’s not sure if he’s got another band in him, not with the Wood Brothers and MMW both going strong. What has captured his interest is teaching. For several years, MMW has been holding its Camp MMW in New York’s Catskill Mountains, giving instruction to ambitious students. Wood is finding a certain niche in musical education that he’d like to occupy.”We find what’s really lacking in traditional music education is the study of rhythm,” he said. “We’re so obsessed with notes and melody, we forget about rhythm. In this camp, we focus on that. Billy Martin wrote a book about rhythm, ‘Riddim: Claves of African Origin.’ That’s given me ideas about new ways to approach music, to approach a band. We’ll see how that comes together.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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