If I lived in Memphis, I’d already have known who Charlie Wood was. Having begun his career in 1990 as Albert King’s touring pianist, for years Wood and his trio were a fixture on Memphis’ Beale Street, exploring that beguiling intersection where blues, rock, and jazz meet.
But I’d never heard of the guy; I picked up this album on a whim, curious to hear the five cover songs he’d chosen to include. I see no point in covering another artist’s work unless you put a new twist on the original song; on that score, Charlie Wood succeeds brilliantly. He turns Paul Simon’s “American Song” (a tune that Simon himself ripped off from Bach) into an irresistible finger-snapper, and Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” into a menacing slinky tango. He splashes some extra funky swing into Elvis Costello’s “Flutter and Wow,” gives a syncopated jolt of soul to Ron Sexsmith’s “Not Too Big,” and layers lush cocktail-lounge sophistication onto Tom Waits’ wistful “Johnsburg, Illinois.” These covers work so well, in some cases I even prefer them to the originals.
Lured in by the covers, I stayed to sample Wood’s own songs – and I was pleasantly surprised. If that sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, think again. It’s a rare delight to sink into an album this effortlessly pleasurable – the musical equivalent of a damned good read. And there are surprises on every track, for Wood is an absurdly versatile keyboardist. On “Doing the Blah Blah Blah” he channels Allen Toussaint’s elegant brand of New Orleans funk; the boogie-woogie of “Be My Ball” evokes Dr. John, and “Last Dance” dives into a jazz-rock groove in the vein of Donald Fagen. The wordplay and bluesy bop of “Let’s Get Up and Walk Around” are pure Mose Allison, while “Up in the Attic” percolates with Georgie Fame-style pop-infused jazz. By the time Wood hits the gentle samba of “What You Will” (to my ears the standout track on the album) I’ve given up trying to trace the bloodlines of Wood’s eclectic style. Name-checking all those influences makes this album sound derivative; I assure you, it absolutely isn’t.
Wood’s nimble fingering and muscular sense of rhythm lend his songs an irresistible swing, but it’s his butterscotch-smooth tenor – flirting, cajoling, scolding, teasing – that truly makes this album engaging. While jazz purists and blues hardliners may dismiss Wood’s sound as easy listening, I’m betting that producer Adam Levy — best known as Norah Jones’ guitarist – came on board specifically to win Charlie Wood more of a crossover audience (hence the eclectic choice of covers). That’s a tough leap to make, but this album could be the springboard for Wood to find the wider audience he deserves.
Charlie Wood’s music isn’t driven by social commentary or personal confession; it doesn’t strive to be provocative or profound. What it does have is consummate musicianship, tight arrangements, and songs that’ll lift your spirits –- and all that is intentional. Wood finally declares his musical manifesto in the album’s last track, simply titled “A Song” – a ready-made jazz standard, something I could easily hear sung by Harry Connick Jr. or Ben Sidran (not coincidentally, one of Charlie Wood’s champions). “Before everyone got indoctrinated,” Wood sings wistfully, “Before everything had been bought and sold / Remember how music intoxicated? / How it got in your heart and your head and took hold?” He’s clever to wait until the last track before laying out his creed — by then he’s proven that he has the musical chops to intoxicate us whenever he wants.