With their latest album, “Kingdom In My Mind,” the Wood Brothers continue to make music that is difficult to define, but easy to enjoy, melding together elements of folk, jazz, rock and blues into a sound that has grown quite distinctive and unique.
To the group’s bassist, Chris Wood, this is exactly what he had in mind from the day he and his brother, Oliver, started the group.
“I had a good friend who once told me the hardening of the categories promotes art disease. It’s convenient in the industry to be marketable and be defined, but it can be confining as an artist,” Wood said in a phone interview. “So we’re always striking that balance. I mean, we want our music to be accessible. We’re not out to do things that are so out there and challenging. But for me what’s exciting is to create accessible music that is also not what you’d expect musically.
“That’s sort of been my fantasy about the Wood Brothers from the very beginning,” he elaborated. “I had this fantasy in my head of what if Charles Mingus and Robert Johnson had started a band together, what would that sound like? How can you bring those two worlds together and not compromise the music or the story, the imagery and lyrical content, but have it be enhanced by it?”
Mingus, of course, is one the greats of jazz, while Johnson was among the most influential pre-World War II bluesmen ever. And on “Kingdom In My Mind” – as on the Wood Brothers previous albums -- those styles surface frequently. “Alabaster” is one such song, with its mix of jazz, blues and rock evoking a blend of anticipation and trepidation. “Little Bit Broken” filters a bit of jazz – note Wood’s slinky bass lines -- into its gritty blues sound. The quirky and soulful “Little Blue,” is another track with a particularly jazzy blues accent.
But these are far from the only styles that find their way into an earthy sound that has grown more multi-faceted over time. “Jitterbug Love,” brings out another key influence – folk – mixed with some swampy blues. Folk also informs “Cry Over Nothing,” which gets a bluesy gospel feel with prominent use of organ and backing vocals, and the playful “The One I Love.” “Think About My Death,” with its stinging guitar and brisk shuffling beat, and the freewheeling slink and boogie of “A Dream’s A Dream” add further richness and variety to “Kingdom In My Mind.”
The Wood Brothers began developing their unique sound under rather spontaneous circumstances in 2003, when King Johnson, a band co-founded by singer/guitarist Oliver Wood, opened a show for Chris Wood’s acclaimed forward-looking jazz ensemble, Medeski, Martin & Wood.
The brothers took the opportunity that night to play together and discovered they still connected musically – as well as on a personal level as brothers.
They realized they wanted to continue to play together and formed the Wood Brothers. “Kingdom In My Mind,” was released in January 2020, and is the group’s seventh full-length studio album. The group has also put out five live releases, including “Live at the Fillmore,” which was released in 2019, and a covers EP.
Along the way, the group expanded to a trio, with drummer Jano Rix, who started out as a hired hand, becoming a full-fledged band member in 2010.
It’s no accident that the Wood Brothers catalog has come to include so many live releases. In Wood’s view, the group’s musical story wouldn’t be complete without them.
That’s because where some bands simply seek to re-create the studio versions of their songs on stage, the Wood Brothers are never really done exploring how songs can evolve as they get played live.
“We like to document some of these versions of songs, where the arrangement has really changed over time in some way,” Wood explained. “We did the same thing on our last live album, ‘Live at the Barn’ (from 2017). We had some reinvented kind of arrangements of some of the older songs. It’s the same thing on this one (“Live at the Fillmore”). Just we really change the arrangements live, and never to obscure the song itself. It’s always recognizable. People can always sing along. But instruments (can be different) and we can do some things that put the composition in a little bit different of a context. It’s a nice little surprise, I think, to hear those songs differently if you’re already familiar with them.”
Wood said he is looking forward to seeing how the trio can continue to evolve both current and older tunes as the group continues to get back into the swing of touring.
“There are certain songs that come together in the studio in such a way that you have to reinvent them a little bit for the live performance, which we love to do anyway,” Wood said. “And we often rearrange old songs to make them come across a little different, make them interesting in new ways. Yeah, it’s all part of the fun challenge.”
That kind of spontaneity played a big role in the making of “Kingdom In My Mind,” as the Wood brothers and Rix got the opportunity to approach the songwriting and recording in a way that encouraged pure, open ended creativity and resulted in what Wood feels is the most authentic Wood Brothers album to date.
Ahead of the project, the group converted a building they were co-renting into a full-fledged studio. Acquiring that space had a direct effect on how the trio started the ball rolling for the album.
“As soon as we got the studio set up, in order to kind of get to know the space, we did about five or so days of just playing and recording over the course of a few months and just improvised,” Wood said. “So we ended up just improvising hours and hours of stuff and created this whole body of source material, with some really magic moments in it, that allowed us to play together in a way that we would never play if we wrote a song and rehearsed it to come up with the music.
“So starting first with no compositions and completely being free to improvise and explore all of the musical things that each of us is able to do in an improvised context, allowed things to magically, spontaneously happen that would never happen otherwise,” he said. “Then the songwriting came out of that. We started to write songs over that material, started to edit that material down into forms and overdub over them and add lyrics and maybe another instrument here or there, but always retaining that original spark of the improvised material. So that for us was exciting, and it felt like the most honest approach yet to not only the songs from us, but the actual original music. It kind of represented each of us as individuals and then what we can do together as a group.”
The Wood Brothers play the Lucas Theatre for the Arts as part of the Savannah Music Festival on Sunday, April 3.