INTERVIEW: Bass Master Chris Wood Chats w/ LMB; West Coast MMW Acoustic Tour Starts Tonight!

Medeski Martin & Wood is one of those groups that needs no introduction. They’ve been a staple of the avant-jazz and live music circuit for over two decades and are some of the most accomplished and innovative musicians around. Their latest official release, Free Magic, is a document from the last fully acoustic tour that MMW played back in 2007. After an east coast acoustic jaunt last fall, the west coast leg of the tour begins tonight in Seattle.

Bassist Chris Wood was kind enough to give us a quick call as he prepped for his trip out west. Having never seen a fully acoustic MMW show, I had a lot of questions about what we could expect on the tour, his work with his brother Oliver, and what was on tap for him for the rest of the year.

LMB: So how did you select the tracks for Free Magic? I imagine there was tons of great material from the 2007 tour, so what was the process for narrowing it down to just 5 tracks? Who spearheaded that process?
CW: Nothing special, we just had to listen to all the material and start weeding things out and making decisions. Yeah, there was a lot to choose from, so I think that’s one reason why it felt like such an intimidating task for us. We didn’t really get to it for a long time, but we’ve spent the last couple tours going through it. Every plane ride or every time we had to travel, I would just try to listen through the shows, make notes, compare different versions of things and that’s how we do it. And then everyone shares their information and it’s a democracy and we all try to decide the ones that should go on the album.

LMB: So what can fans expect during this run? Will there be a set of Shackman type improv followed by some classics, or some mix between the two.
CW: All of that!

LMB: Great.
CW: [Laughs] I don’t really know, that’s the truth, but probably all of that.

LMB: How does your mindset going into an acoustic show differ vs going into an electric one. How do you approach it?
CW: You know, it’s totally different every tour. And you know, honestly, I’ll find out when we’re all there together on the west coast doing it. There are certain songs that really lend themselves to an electric setup, and then there’s certain ones that work great in an acoustic format. So we’ll always experiment with that and are always coming up with brand new stuff. Of course, there’s always improvisation involved… so it’s hard to predict but there will be a little bit of all that.

LMB: Do you find it’s more challenging or somewhat freeing when you’re up there to have some restrictions already in place in terms of the instrumentation?
CW: Well it’s a little bit like Russian roulette; it can go in either direction depending on the night. There are many factors: how things sound and how easy it is to hear each other, and sometimes it’s effortless and everything seems to play itself and sometimes it’s a struggle, you know? But it’s just like any job, you have good days and bad days.

LMB: That reminds me, I was at the workshop MSMW held on Jamcruise and remember the four of you speaking to the idea of never playing a song the same way twice — playing without a net and how you can’t overthink whether the sounds you’re making are good or not.
CW: Well, you just can’t know if it’s good, that’s what it comes down to, so if that’s what you’re caught up on, then you’re kind of caught up in a hopeless control battle that you’ll never win. So you just have to try and stay in the moment and react, do your best, have a lot of trust and a lot of faith in yourself and in your bandmates and just try to communicate and be open, and hopefully the audience will be right there with you and you’ll all go on a journey together.

LMB: Certainly, having trust in your bandmates comes easier when you’ve been playing together for 20 years.
CW: For sure.

LMB: That brings me to the big 20th anniversary Blue Note residency. Was there anything surprising about that? Did it bring up any cool new ideas collaborating with musicians you don’t always get to play with?
CW: Yeah, it was great to play with all these different musicians. We got to play with Nels Cline, the guitar player from Wilco, and that was wonderful. We’d never played with him before and it was just so easy and inspiring and it took us in a different direction. As opposed to playing with Marc Ribot, who’s equally as inspiring, and a great musician who we’ve played with him a bunch of times. He’s got his own personality and he invokes entirely different things in us. And then obviously, Bill Evans the sax player has his own style as well, and we had a percussionist one night, Aïyb Dieng. So it makes a big difference as improvisers. Naturally, we’re very affected by who we’re playing with and we want to be able to take it to new directions if that’s what’s being inspired by playing with someone.

LMB: I didn’t know that none of you had played with Nels before; how did that come about?
CW: We’ve been interested in playing with each other for a while, and it just happened to work out. He doesn’t live far from the Blue Note and he happened to be in town that week, so it was perfect. We had a blast playing with him.

LMB: In terms of other collaborations, are there any other musicians that are on the shortlist of people that you’d like to work with?
CW: I’m in my own world sometimes, but there are so many great players out there. And we know it’ll happen down the road. We’re just going to keep meeting people and keep collaborating…it’s what we do.

LMB: So what’s next for you after this run of acoustic shows? Looks like you’ve got some Wood Brothers shows this summer along with some MMW European festival dates.
CW: So we just finished a new Wood Brothers record. Well, actually it’s being mixed right now so it’s not exactly done, but we’re in the middle of making that. That’s going to come out in early September so we have some summer US festivals dates before that, and then a lot of touring behind the album in the fall. And then MMW’s doing Europe this summer as well as again this fall. And we’re talking to Scofield about making another record, so we’re just lining up more work! [Laughs]

LMB: Never a dull moment. It sounds like there’s a lot on tap; is that one of the reasons why MMW Camp isn’t happening this year?
CW: Well, actually I’m about to move down to Nashville, so I’m going to be settling into a new place and that’s going to make my summer pretty crazy. So we decided it’d be better to just take a year off.

LMB: Is the move to Nashville related in some way to the type of music you’ve been rediscovering playing in The Wood Brothers and wanting to be closer to the nexus of that sound?
CW: Well, it’s mostly my brother and I have been wanting to live in the same city for a long time, so I’m really moving there for both musical and family reasons.

LMB: Did you play a lot together growing up, or was it something that hadn’t happened until recently?
CW: Yep, we played a lot growing up and then just went off in our own directions pursuing music separately for a long time. So when we got back together it was real natural and felt effortless. It felt like it made sense and we should be doing it together for a living.

LMB: How did you pick the covers on those Wood Brothers albums? I’ve read how you grew up in a very musical household, so did those song like “Buckets of Rain” and “Angel” have special significance growing up?
CW: You know, our father was a folkie, kind of in the same generation more or less as Bob Dylan and played a lot of those same tunes that Dylan and people like him used to play back in the day. So there’s that influence, as well as a lot of 60’s rock that we listened to growing up, and we definitely listened to Hendrix. But ultimately we pick the kind of tunes and covers that we relate to and feel like we can make our own in some way.

LMB: So I need to ask about your cover of Michael Jackson’s P.Y.T. Did that rendition originate from The A.V. Club or did it predate that?
CW: That was strictly something that came out of the A.V. Club. We had some fun with that and play it live at our shows now occasionally.

LMB: It’s always seemed to me that you have a broad spectrum of musical influences. What’s in heavy rotation on your turntable or CD player right now?
CW: Well right now, I’m just listening to Wood Brother mixes as they come in. [Laughs] You know, it’s hard — whenever you’re right in the middle of making a record you’re always doing a lot of that so there isn’t time to focus on much else.

LMB: Makes sense. Well last but not least, I’m a little biased and couldn’t help but notice that San Francisco was the only city on the upcoming west coast tour where MMW is playing more than 1 night. Is there any special affinity you have with San Francisco?
CW: Yeah, we love San Francisco. We’ve had a long history there. We’ve got a lot of friends there, we love playing there, we love to eat there. Definitely one of our favorite places!

Thanks again to Chris for taking the time to chat with us. The tour starts tonight, and I can say without hesitation that Medeski Martin and Wood always throw down, so don’t pass up this opportunity to see the trio in a rare acoustic setting. And be on the lookout for The Wood Brothers this summer as well…

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Upcoming Medeski Martin & Wood US tour dates:

April 17 | Kirkland Performance Center | Kirkland, WA
April 18 | Roseland Theater | Portland, OR
April 19 | Napa Valley Opera House | Napa, CA
April 20 | Mondavi Center-UC Davis | Davis, CA
April 21 | Knitting Factory | Reno, NV
April 22 | Great American Music Hall | San Francisco, CA
April 23 | Great American Music Hall | San Francisco, CA
April 25 | Sunset Center | Carmel, CA
April 26 | Royce Hall-UCLA | Los Angeles, CA
April 27 | Belly Up | Solana Beach, CA
June 23 | Solid Sound Festival | North Adams, MA

Listen to the Chris Wood penned “Doppler” off of Free Magic here: