Bassist Chris Wood was taking some midday chill time in Athens, Ga., when we caught up to him last weekend, cooling his heels before his gig that night with The Wood Brothers band, his six-year project with his brother, guitarist and singer Oliver. The Wood Brothers project, which started out as an impromptu jam session at a family reunion in 2004 and eventually blossomed into a multi-album, multi-tour project mining roots and folk stylings, has kept Wood busy much of the year, with two live releases this year alone and a recently completed tour leg opening for British rock icon Steve Winwood.
“We decided to kind of re-release some of the material from the first record we did, Ways Not To Lose, that was recorded kind of spare, just as a duo,” he explains. “We’ve been touring the last year and a half with our drummer, Jano Rix, from Nashville, so a lot of our old material now has been fleshed out with drums and a third harmony part, and Jano also plays some keyboards. … So it’s a fuller sound.
“It feel likes a natural evolution for us. … It’s been great having Jano, not only playing drums and singing, but he’s a great keyboard player as well. We feel like we’re just scratching the surface still.”
But what brings Wood to Boulder this weekend, his and Oliver’s home town, is one of two Colorado gigs that pairs his longtime alt-jazz trio band — Medeski, Martin and Wood — with guitarist John Scofield. Scofield has recorded and played with MMW on and off since the late 1990s. While he is commonly known as one of a long list of guitarists who recorded and toured with Miles Davis during the trumpet player’s late-career fusion and post-fusion period, Scofield has quietly built a reputation as a thoughtful, spontaneous and abundantly collaborative player in his own right. A solid and marksman-like soloist in the pocket, Scofield can also settle in with eerie fluency amidst MMW’s rangy and impressionistic funk and sideways-blues excursions, fully capable of grounding the trio or chasing them around the ether. MMW’s music has always occupied a restless and irregularly lit musical space — Scofield plays into that space, where a lesser player, someone who may have learned the wrong lessons from post-Bitches Brew jazz fusion, might simply be satisfied soloing his ass off over it.
“He’s a great fit,” Wood says, “he just makes it effortless. We don’t have to think about it, we don’t talk about it much. He has a lot of the same sensibilities, both rhythmically, with the kind of groove and New Orleans stuff he was influenced by, as well as the more jazz, line-playing stuff he did with Miles that we were influenced by, all us being big Miles Davis fans. With John, it’s great, he just brings all of that together.
“As a rhythm section, I think we’re good for him because we can play the grooves and go in that direction, but also kind of live out our ’70s-electric- Miles-Davis-fusion fantasies.
“He’s got such a slinky way of playing — he’s an incredible line player, so this combination of this great rhythm and groove sensibility along with the great jazz lines he’s known for, just makes it fun for us.”
It seems a little hard to grasp, and actually seemed a little hard for Wood himself to grasp when we reminded him of it, that MMW is already in its third decade, an astonishing accomplishment for a trio without anything resembling a hit record (and over those 20 years, even the very definition of a “hit” has evolved).
Wood takes a long view.
“It’s amazing to see how the music industry has changed over the last 20 years. And the way we toured — like the fact we were touring before there were cell phones, how out of touch we were with each other. I mean, everything was done on payphones.
“And the fact that people used to actually spend money on recorded music. You used to be able to make a living, or at least a better living, selling recorded music. Which today is almost impossible unless you’re really huge, but even if for the people who have a big hit, they’re selling much, much less than they used to. … So of course, everyone’s got to tour, which means the touring market is over-saturated. With so many bands touring, it makes the live business harder.
“And these things are still changing all the time, like the social media thing. The younger players all grew up with it, and I think they tend to be better at it. I’m still kind of learning it.”
Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood play 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7 at the Ogden Theater in Denver. They play 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8 at the Boulder Theater. Visit mmw.net for more information.