Chris Wood, Emphatically Uninvisible
Fresh off his tour with Stanton Moore, Chris Wood is back out there hitting it again. He is in the midst of a national tour with his longstanding principal project, Medeski Martin & Wood. These gigs carry the band into its second decade, of what Woods suggests began as “one big improvisation” on a number of levels.
The band’s latest release is Uninvisible, which harkens back a bit to the trio’s grooving discs of yore (okay, a couple of years ago). However it does so from a new perspective, referencing a sound it helped to popularize, yet keeping it sparer, with the results more insidious than insistent. In part this is the influence of engineer Scott Harding took on new responsibilities with this release in shaping the results. In the following interview Wood talks about the Stanton project, the genesis of the new album and presenting new music on the road. He recommends some discs as well.
DB- You just finished a run of dates with Stanton Moore. How would you describe that experience relative to your tours with MMW?
CW- I was basically there as an official side man. It was Stanton’s gig, Stanton’s project but he gave all of us freedom to do what we do. It wasn’t like he was trying to lead us in any strict kind of way so it really wasn’t that different. We went in there and played music, played off each other and reacted to each other. It was different only because I was dealing with different players and different personalities, not to mention different instrumentation. Playing behind a sax solo with no chordal instrument is a lot different than playing behind John who’s got his left hand going, comping for himself. So it leaves you with a lot of freedom to go anywhere you want.
What was so great about he way he led the project, was it felt like a band. I was a side man only in terms of an official title. Everyone had equal footing and could interject ideas and make up their own parts and comment on each other’s playing just like we do with MMW. For me it was really fun to have that experience, that openness in a setting other than MMW. There was a similar attitude towards the music, just with different guys., For me it was really refreshing to know that there’s more of that out there in world (laughs). Stanton's such a great drummer and he’s also different from Billy which is exciting too to play with someone at an equally high level of drumming who comes at it from a different style, with a different personality, different approach, different choices.
DB- What do you take away from that experience and bring to MMW?
CW- The main thing I take away is perspective. It’s nice to play with other personalities to see what that’s like, to see what works and what doesn’t work. I learn a lot from it and I bring it back to MMW. I also get more of a sense of individuality, get some new ideas and at the same time maybe appreciate some things with MMW that I took for granted. It’s important that we all do that, that everyone goes out and does their projects.
DB- Is there a maximum amount of time away from the band at which point you feel you need to get together and play?
CW- It’s always changing. Sometimes I think the best concerts are at the beginning of the tour because that’s when we’re freshest. Sometimes when you’ve been playing a lot together you begin to wonder, did I do this last time, is it the same old thing? You start second guessing yourself and maybe you feel stale but on the other hand you might be tighter as a band. So while from an audience point of view it’s a better concert from your point of view you did the same old thing. So it’s hard to say because as a player how you feel about the music doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the music.
DB- Has it been hard coming to terms with that dichotomy?
CW- Yeah it was and it took years. Now I just give up. The most important thing is to have a good time. You have no control it over it so just do the best and be thankful that you have the opportunity to do it at all.
DB- How do you respond when someone who sees a show out of your contextual frame just raves over a gig that felt flat to you?
CW- This is the thing, I’ve had the same experience myself with my own gigs. There are times when we just played a concert and we had the best time and everything seems to be flowing and I think we just made amazing music together and then I listen back to the tapes a couple weeks later and it’s no good. It feels contrived or we’re overplaying or whatever.
I’ve also had the opposite experience where we feel insecure, tentative, had a miserable experience, maybe even gotten into a fight, and then I listen back to the tape and we’re playing this beautiful music that has all this space. So if the fan loves the music and I had a bad night, I recognize that I don’t know how it’s coming across out there.
DB- Is there an algorithm or elements that can be in place and lend themselves to a stronger performance? You mentioned the beginning of a tour.
CW- Well, even that, maybe it just feels more interesting. There’s no formula because sometimes later in the tour you just get sick of what you’re doing and try something new. Then you discover a whole new way of playing a tune and that becomes refreshing. You go through cycles all the time. I feel like you can’t control it, so you just do the best you can not to feel too attached to the music.
DB- You’re been performing with MMW for more than ten years now, would you say that the nature of the improvisation has changed or rather the musical conversations you’re having?
CW- There may be certain ways that we used to play that we feel have been done so much that we’re trying new things. We’re always trying to find new ways of playing and some of those things are really subtle. It might just be relaxing a little more or playing a little more space, something that might not be immediately obvious to the audience. But to us who have been playing with each other for so long we feel it. In the early days I think we had more time to compose music together and now we have less and less time so out of pure necessity we compose on the spot more often. We don’t want to play the same old stuff together so we make up new things and sometimes they’re amazing and sometimes they fail. There’s definitely a risk.
DB- You have a new release out. But looking back in terms of your past discs, which of them do you think was most successful in terms of achieving what you set out to achieve?
CW- In way I would say Friday Afternoon in the Universe because we planned to make a record that had tunes on it along with vignettes. We wove them all together and I think it worked really well on that record. That was one of the first times we had a preconceived notion that turned out, so I guess I’ll pick that one
DB- Uninvisible is less rhythmically abstract and more groove-oriented than your past few releases. Was that your intent going in?
CW- We did have that intention with this one. We got something out of our system on The Dropper. So we felt let’s make this a more consistently grooving record. We had the idea in our mind of a dub record but we knew it wouldn’t turn out like a dub record. There was this idea that the record has a consistent groove through it and you’re always feeling that. Even if the melodic content’s really sparse or more textural you just always have that groove there.
DB- This is Scott Harding’s third time in the studio with the band. What does he bring to bear?
CW- In an engineering sense he’s a great improviser and not afraid to try extreme moves in the studio. That’s what I think we really like about it. On this record he has more of an influence than he’s ever had and that’s why for the first time we don’t even consider ourselves the producers of this record, just Scotty Hard. We went into the recording process without preparing much in advance. We just started recording, did a lot of improvising and Scotty really helped us turn these pieces into finished pieces of music through overdubbing and editing. He was helping us arrange them by using the studio and Pro Tools and shaping the pieces. He even played some guitar on it so his sound is over all this.
DB- How was the approach different on Uninvisible in terms of songwriting?
CW- The songwriting included the editing, it was part of the whole process. The songs weren't really done until they were mastered, they really changed a lot along the way. It’s not that we just had them on tape and that was it, there was a lot of shaping along the way and Scott had a lot to do with that. We did some improvisation, got it down on tape and then he would sit down by himself or maybe with one of us. In the past we were much more active in that process. All three of us would be in there and I would taking stuff home and editing it myself and trying all these things. This time Scotty came in and had a big influence on how the record sounded.
DB- Was that difficult then to get each of you to sign off on the results?
CW- There’s always some dialogue but ultimately Scotty did his thing. He made choices that I might not have made if I was left alone with the material so sometimes it took me a minute to get used to it. But once I did I really liked what he did. When you’re that close to the material it's hard to detach yourself from it. When you’ve heard it that many times you have certain ideas. But once I put those aside and heard it for what it is I loved it.
DB- I would imagine that is liberating for yourself and the sound.
CW- Yeah it allows the record to sound different from the last one which is important to us.
DB- When do you typically decide to bring in guests to record with you?
CW- They usually happen because a lot of what we do in the studio is improvisation. So we’ll listen back and we’ll like certain ones but we’ll still think we need something. A lot of times it’s real intuitive we’ll hear something and we think Danny Blume his guitar playing would be great over this section. The whole thing with Col Bruce Hampton- he’s a friend of ours, we’ve known him for years from touring down in the south. So John just called him up and said, “Send us a tape with some voice stuff on it.” So he sent us a tape of that story completely unaccompanied and then we flew it over one of the improvisations that we had that needed something and that did the trick.
DB- What about Brad Roberts?
CW- He’s a friend of Scott Harding's who happened to be hanging out in the studio. He literally said, “Hey, why don’t you put me on your record?” So we set up a mike for him and he hummed along with us.
DB- In terms of the horns, did you have arrangements for them? Charts?
CW- With the horn players we actually took turns going into the room and directing them. Each person in the band would go in there and say, play this rhythmic figure or play this chord or whatever and direct them through the songs. Then we just used parts of them. So on “Nocturnal Transmission” I may have come up with a little melodic figure at the beginning, Billy came up with the rhythmic figure in the bridge and John came up with the big chord in the bridge. It’s all mixed.
DB- Let’s talk a bit more about your live performances. Does the band use setlists?
CW- It varies but this last tour we didn’t do it all, no.
DB- Since I’ve heard you say that there is no single leader in the group, how hard is it keep things in motion, even at the level of just moving to the next song?
CW- You have to find the balance, the right moments. We don’t have a leader who’s a leader all the time but at moments one person can lead the way, we’re always changing roles. Sometimes you take the forefront or start a new song just to lead the band somewhere and sometimes someone else is going to do it and you have to step back and support their decision.
I think that’s the nature of our group, we’re always changing roles and also literally as instrumentalists too. John could take over the bass part from me with his left hand and I could then play more of a melodic role or I could take more of a percussive role and Billy will take more a melodic role, so we’re always changing roles.
DB- You mentioned that much of Uninvisible came together through editing. How do you approach those songs or themes in the live setting?
CW- With the type of music we play, we can’t deny the moment, we can’t deny what the venue sounds like or what the stage sound sounds like, so we’re always reacting to that. But we are conscious of the record and want to bring some of that sound across. We also don’t want to copy the record exactly because that goes against the whole nature of the music too, it's not like we’re a cover band of ourselves. That’s the challenge.
A lot of these tracks on the record are improvisations that were only played once. Like the first tune, that was completely out of the blue. That was played from beginning to end as an improvisation. The tape was rolling, I stepped on the pedal that gave me that sound and just started playing that bassline. Then Billy joined in and John joined in and there you have it. The only change we made was to go back and overdub some horns. So to figure out how to play that live is a challenge. We need to figure out what is the part that we play on a given night and what’s the part that changes. And we want to keep that process fluid throughout the tour. We don't want to have it set in stone because then it loses its magic.
DB- Relative to the sound of the venue and the stage, what is the impact on the band’s music when you move from a smaller jazz clubs to a big outdoor gig with the Dave Matthews Band?
CW- You lose sense of subtly in a big place and you feel like everything has to be a grand gesture. Whereas in a small club with no p.a. you’re just completely free to do anything, get quiet and the audience can see your faces and they’re there witnessing all the interplay going on. In a big place you think in these bigger sweeping gestures which is the best way I can describe it. That can be fun too but I wouldn’t want to do it all the time. For us variety is the most important thing.
DB- I’d like to talk a bit about your musical development. Your brother Oliver is a professional musician [he toured with Tinsley Ellis and currently plays with King Johnson]. Do you come from a musical household?
CW- My dad is a musician, not a professional one, although he probably could have been one. He’s a scientist, a microbiologist, and he played with Joan Baez back in the Cambridge folk days of the late 50’s. He went to Harvard and was in that whole scene. My mom is a poet so there definitely an artistic strain in the family.
DB- When did you start on the bass?
CW- Around seventh grade. My brother started playing my father’s guitar and then for whatever reason my parents got him a bass for Christmas. He learned that for a while and then he ended up getting an electric guitar. The bass was lying around, so he taught me some blues bass lines. We played together a little bit, and then I joined the school stage band, jazz big band in junior high
DB- So did you ever gig as the Wood family brothers?
CW- Not yet. Maybe that will happen. We want to make a record together.
DB- Who would you identify as your biggest influences and inspirations on bass?
CW- I always mention Charles Mingus
DB- Bob Moses, who grew up with Mingus in his house, said some very complimentary things about you, calling you the closest to Mingus in terms of strength, power and soul. How do you react to that?
CW- Bob likes to exaggerate (laughs). I mean that’s very flattering but I know better than that. I listen to Mingus and I have a lot to learn still. He was such a complete musician and incredible composer. He was coming from Duke Ellington and really soaked up that style and then found his own voice with it completely. He was an incredible band leader with personality. His music is really amazing, soulful to the point where some people don’t get it, it’s almost too personal, I don’t know what it was but his bass playing never fit the jazz educator’s mold the way that for example Ray Brown or Paul Chambers did. He was avant-garde in a lot of ways even though sometimes he was all out bluesy. He was an extreme personality so I think some people overlook his bass playing which I guess is why most people tend to mention him as a composer. But I think his bass playing is amazing. I don’t think there’s anybody better.
DB- One thing I like to do on the site, is have musicians recommend some discs that our readers should check out. What would you point to in the Mingus canon?
CW- There’s few that I think are particularly classic. I’ll try to narrow it down, although it’s really hard. Blues and Roots is great. Mingus Mingus Mingus; also Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus which is a great one. Then there’s Mingus Ah Um which is sort of his classic big band that has the classic version of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” on it, so beautiful. There’s a great trio record that I didn’t get turned on to until couple of years ago with Charles Mingus, Hampton Hawes and Dannie Richmond. The Mingus record I also have to mention that is not a Mingus record is Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle.
DB- Who else is out there that you really dig and our readers should seek out?
CW- Ronnie Boykins is just amazing on the Sun Ra stuff, I love Michael Henderson on Miles Davis, Live Evil; Jimmy Garrison with Coltrane; Miles Quartet the way Ron Carter and Tony Williams played together is amazing. I love Scott Lafaro but unfortunately he died so young so just didn’t have the volume of recording of some other people but there’s amazing record for real a Hampton Hawes record, For Real that Scott Lafaro played on.
DB- Lafaro played with Bill Evans too, right?
CW-Yeah but for some reason Bill Evans has a certain ethereal style and it was nice to hear Scott Lafaro on a more bluesy grooving record because you don’t hear that side of him as much as you do on the Bill Evans stuff. Bob Moses turned me to that record and I end up listening to that when I want to hear Scott Lafaro.
DB- You’ve had a longstanding relationship with Bob Moses.
CW- Sure, he’s like a mentor. He was my teacher at New England Conservatory and I started playing gigs with him in Boston. He grew up in the world of masters and he was side by side with a lot of them. He has so many stories and has soaked up their style but yet he has this innovative spirit and he’s always finding new ways to play.
DB- In terms of your New England Conservatory days, what were you initial aspirations? Did you ever imagine that you would be on your current path?
CW- I guess I assumed that what you do is learn jazz, then become a sideman to some famous jazz musician and move to New York. I just didn’t know what else was out there. There were no role models. I’d seen lots of musicians go off and become side men so I understood that and where that led. But this style of rock and roll touring in a van, sleeping on people’s floors and eventually living in an RV together was just beyond what I thought of as a musician wannabe kid in high school. When we found ourselves in a RV, sleeping in RV parks and touring around the US it was just one big improvisation. There was no road map to follow, we were just making it up as we went along.