Chris Wood is best known as the bassist for the quirky jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood. Since the early 1990s, he has explored with that group just about every texture you can create with an upright bass, a drum kit, and an array of vintage keyboards plus the occasional regular piano. MMW’s 1996 album Shack-Man (Ryko/Gramaphone) was their coming-out party, launching them from New York’s Lower East Side to international fame. Wood’s agile and conversational playing was the linchpin of that album’s chugging funky soul-jazz, by turns keeping keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Billy Martin in line, and urging them to orbit the rings of Saturn.
This is still the kind of music the band are best known for, and despite the fact that MMW have always considered themselves as serious jazz heads and not just merchants of groove, the danceability of their mid-1990s albums won the group an ardent hippie audience. Indeed, around that time the group began to move away from live shows that funked out from beginning to end in favor of sets that explored textures and harmonies in a more cerebral way, albeit still with a liberal dose of broken-spined funk. They even added a turntablist to the mix at times (as on 1999′s very worthwhile Combustication), allowing for four-way group improvisations that often ranged into free-jazz territory.
One effect of these changes was that the spotlight receded from the group a bit, allowing them to make the music they wanted to make out of sight of legions of smelly fans that they didn’t necessarily want or need. Another effect was that their recorded output became less predictable. Since 1998, the band’s home has been Blue Note Records, and true to that label’s heritage the band have matured from makers of groovy jazz-funk spiked with a little avant-garde sourness into an intrepid, if only intermittently compelling, group of avant garde jazz explorers.
Since signing with Blue Note, MMW have achieved the impossible: they have managed to retain an avid audience of casual-at-best jazz fans who are willing to buy their albums through numerous experimental phases, and have simultaneously become prime movers in the hipper-than-thou downtown Manhattan jazz scene where they got their start in the early ’90s. Given all this continued success, it seems like Medeski Martin & Wood have it all figured out.
Interesting, then, that Chris Wood’s first non-Medeski Martin & Wood record has nothing to do with any of this whatsoever. Instead, he and his brother Oliver have teamed up as The Wood Brothers to produce Ways Not To Lose, an easygoing and downcast folk/country family jam. The record is quite a departure indeed, at least in genre, from Chris Wood’s other work. Out are the lopsided jazz explorations, and in are warm and homey acoustic back-porch grooves that owe a debt to Keb’ Mo’, Tom Waits, and early Doctor John.
Although this is the first time the Wood brothers have recorded together, they have been playing together since they were small, and it shows. There is a certain synergy that comes from highly trained musicians playing with all the discipline in the world: the edges are crisp, the articulations are perfect, and you can’t tell if it’s one trumpet or six when they play unison lines. Herb Alpert’s bands were masters of this kind of synergy. There is another kind of synergy that comes from pure affinity; a group of musicians whose styles fuse as though through alchemy into something greater than any of them. Bill Evans’ first trio with Scott LaFaro was a great example. But there’s a third kind of synergy that only blood and time can create. If you listen to the Carter Family, you are hearing the sound of three people who have breathed the same air, who were brought up the same way, and who probably shared a childhood bed. This runs deeper than training or sympathy, and although it is no greater or lesser than any other kind of synergy, it is nonetheless unique and impossible to fake.
Ways Not To Lose is loaded with little moments of this kind: although the musical material is simple arrangements of acoustic guitar or dobro, upright bass, and Oliver’s Leon Russell-esque voice, each of the twelve songs on the album sound like they were written and recorded telepathically. Chris’ bass fits right into the spaces that Oliver’s guitar creates; Oliver draws out a word in the lyric just as Chris holds onto a note in the bass line. It’s quite an effect.
Even in this very different context, Chris Wood’s playing is still as distinctive as ever. His touch on the string bass has a lot of slack to it, a lot of finger-click. So, unlike the playing of (say) Ron Carter, which is rich, chocolatey and dark, Wood’s is smaller and more intimate, even more playful. His style is not always to my personal taste (I’m a bass player too, and tend to favor deep round tones and mile-deep grooves), but it has always worked for him. In the context of MMW, it allowed his playing to stay proportional to the jittery textures favored by keyboardist John Medeski and the tin-can percussion of drummer Billy Martin. On Ways Not To Lose it keeps things sounding loose and light even when the lyrical content gets downcast.
And downcast the album is. Despite a genial, airy quality to the recording, and despite some very clean and sunny dobro and acoustic guitar from Oliver, most of the songs on Ways Not To Lose are subdued affairs about angels, losing, leaving, and the fleeting moments of happiness that punctuate life. In this, the Wood Brothers have made their contribution to the hallowed genre of country-folk, an ill-defined amalgam of country, blues, folk, and primitive rock plus the occasional hot-jazz flourish that goes all the way back to The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and thousands of forgotten folks in a thousand mountain towns. The Wood Brothers even cover the great country-gospel standard “Angel Band,” slowing the song to a crawl and wringing some honest pain from the plaintive melody. This performance, as with many here, wouldn’t be out of place on a Tom Waits album circa 1977, or a Doctor John or Leon Russell album, or a Dave Matthews album if he ever went rustic. It’s a nice little contribution to an old but vital genre.
But that’s just the problem. As pleasant as Ways Not To Lose is, there’s a lot of “nice” porch-music albums in the world already. I keep finding myself wishing that the Wood Brothers followed their instincts toward the weird side a little more. One of the most interesting songs on Ways Not To Lose is “Where My Baby Might Be,” which is decorated with a harmonica that might be a train, or might be a big black crow that won’t shut up. Just this little musical bank-shot gives the song’s dead-girlfriend lyric a bit more impact. A few more moments like this, and Ways Not To Lose might have been a real winner. As it is, it’s a bit of a draw.