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.”
Photo courtesy of David Barnum