Chris Wood on bass lessons, philosophy & Saugerties

Photo by Dion Ogust

Truth be told, Medeski, Martin & Wood are (is?) one of my favorite groups. I’ve seen them more than any other. They were even on the bill at the first show I ever attended; one of those big traveling summer concerts spawned by Lollapalooza. So I wasn’t altogether surprised to learn keyboardist John Medeski and bassist Chris Wood are both residents of the Hudson Valley. It made sense that musicians of such impeccable taste would pick this part of the world to settle down.

I first learned that Chris Wood lived in Saugerties in the summer of 2010 at a benefit for the school’s art and music departments, held at Opus 40. He was there as a musician and a parent. He spoke about how important his early musical education was.

It’s a theme that resurfaced in our interview for this piece. Wood talked at length about the influence of a succession of excellent bass instructors in junior high, high school and at the New England Conservatory of Music.

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His advice? Take lessons. In person. “It’s very important,” said Wood. “These days people think ‘Everything’s available on the Internet so why should I go?’ But there’s nothing like the transference that happens when you’re in a room with somebody.”

Wood grew up in Boulder, Colorado. He got started on the bass the way many younger brothers do, when elder brother Oliver got a guitar and convinced Chris to cover the low end. (Today the two play together as The Wood Brothers.)

Their father was a folkie and had instruments laying around. The two brothers used to play along with old blues records, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. “Those records were incredibly inspiring sonically, what they sounded like,” said Wood. “The bass sounds were amazing, in contrast to a lot of the bass sounds that were about to start happening in the 80s pop world which were not so appealing to me.”

While at the Conservatory, Wood met John Medeski and eventually the two moved to New York City, where they played together in the early ‘90s lower-Manhattan jazz scene. Next came drummer Billy Martin. Twenty years later and the “avante-groove” group is still together.

That’s a long time, and Wood said he sometimes thinks it’s a “wonder” the three have been able to hold it together. He thinks it’s because they all bring something different to the table, both musically and interpersonally. It the band’s early days Chris would handle the money, John would cook the food and Billy would fix the van. They had to get along. They needed each other. Musically, it’s the same thing. The group’s unique sound comes from the unorthodox combination of styles each player brings to the mix. On paper, it shouldn’t work, but there’s something about these three guys that definitely does work, and they know it.

“It’s a little harder to describe, maybe, but we all had these things that we would input and different ways of seeing things and ideas and we put it all together it just made for a good combination,” said Wood. “And it wasn’t always easy because there was no leader. So it took time sometimes to make all of our ideas fit together, but it was always worth it.”

Wood moved up to Saugerties ten years ago when it was time to start a family. After a few expeditions he discovered Saugerties and something clicked. “Maybe it’s because of our Boulder roots, I don’t know,” he said. “Something about it felt right, felt familiar, it felt like we could be at home here.”

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