Sunday, March 04, 2007

Jazz pianist John Wood, who I've written about before on this blog, here, here, and here, etc., will have his first Japanese CD, entitled Blue in Green, released on April 23rd on SSJ Records. He has also begun to issue his CDs in the U.S. What is so extraordinary about this turn of events is that John has an impressive body of work---13 albums to be exact---stretching back three decades plus change, but seems to have taken his good old time in releasing this strictly-vinyl catalogue in the CD format. Now, however, it has begun to happen, and not a minute too soon. Reaction to the U.S. issues has been strong, and one suspects that Japanese response to the SSJ release, along with the others as they come out, will be at least as great. Players on various of John's releases include the likes of no less than Joe Henderson, Ray Pizzi, Woody Shaw, Billy Higgins, and Tony Dumas.

If you are unfamiliar with John's history, the Leonard Feather liner notes to his Inner Merge LP, which will soon be released in the U.S. (replete with three bonus tracks) under the title Drum Machnes Have No Soul v. 3, should help set the story straight. To wit:

"John Wood came to jazz as a profession at a time that might have been considered somewhat less than propitious. His recording career began around the period when words like "fusion" and "crossover" were heard in the jazz marketplace, when businessmen and producers became dominant figures in what had remained for decades a relatively unadulterated art form.

Fortunately Wood is not the kind of artist easily swayed by commercial temptations. In order to understand why his sense of direction is so unusually firm, it is necessary to examine his background and his credentials both as listener and performer.

Born November 1, 1950 in Nashville, he moved to Los Angeles with his family at the age of six. His father is Randy Wood, the founder of Dot Records, and of Randy's Record Shop, WLAC Nashville, the world's largest mail order record shop and the cornerstone of black culture in America for the twenty crucial years of the civil rights movement.

"In the house where I grew up," John recalls, "back in the late '50s and early 1960's, I was really into Frank Sinatra, Nancy Wilson, Andre Previn, and felt that this was jazz music. That's all I had really heard. Then I heard this record called The Sermon by Jimmy Smith. I had never heard anything like that before, and it changed my whole view of what I wanted to do. After that, I took an interest in Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Bill Evans, and within two or three years I actually started playing myself.”

His one and only teacher was Ernie Hughes, with whom he studied piano From 1965-8. He had been playing less than a year when he began to work parties and gigs with his own trio.

His extensive listening experience continued as he examined the work not only of the mainstream jazzmen, but also of Tim Buckley ("he made a couple of great records that really got to me") and Judy Collins.

In 1974 Wood's father, acknowledging that his son was going to be involved with music and recording, decided to build a studio. located in West Hollywood, Ca., it became the family business; John went to work there ---"I spend most of my time manning and overseeing the comings and goings of people who work there, booking time, and doing a little taste of engineering. Jazz music really didn't have anything to do with the capital that it took to build the studio, but it's always remained my motivation for playing."

In an interview with Lee Underwood for Down Beat, Wood once evaluated his own work. "I'm participating in and extending a long, deep heritage of American jazz. Basically I keep going back to people like Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Gary Burton and Bill Evans. . .I inevitably sacrifice new music listening time by spending so much time listening to records made in years gone by." Despite this sentiment, John Wood is anything but an antiquarian; his music is just as much a sound of the 70s as that of Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea.

For the past year or two, John has been working off and on with Tony Dumas, one of the youngest and most prominent bassists on the Southern California scene. Born in Los Angeles October 1, 1955, Dumas made his professional debut on the road with organist Johnny Hammond. Soon after, he joined Freddie Hubbard and stayed with him a year. He has also worked with Kenny Burrell, and in 1977 toured Japan with JJ. Johnson and Nat Adderley.

Dumas takes special pride in his instrument, the Blitz bass, which has an upright bass fingering board, no sound board, and a special extension enabling him to reach a major third below the bottom E. "It used to belong to Reggie Johnson, who sold it to me when he quit playing for a while," Dumas says. The powerful impact of this physically bodiless yet musically full-bodied instrument is particularly well showcased in Tony's own composition Star Doom.

The opening cut, Inner Urge, began, Wood points out, as "one of Joe Henderson's best tunes, and the title number of one of his best selling albums." An appropriate introduction to Wood's improvisational character is provided here, with his characteristically gentle yet firm left hand punctuations, the rolling, relentless single note lines alternating with impressionistic chords in the right hand.

Next we are introduced to Wood the composer. "I wrote One For Teenie in the studio," he says. "I wanted to conjure up a mood similar to what Yusef Lateef evoked in his recording of Theme From Spartacus. With the help of Ray Pizzi, who has such a personal and refined sound on flute, I think I succeeded."

Ray Pizzi was a high school band teacher in a Boston suburb before moving to California in 1969. After recording with Willie Bobo and Shelly Manne among others, he joined John Rodby's house bond on the Dinah Shore show in 1974. Two years later Dizzy Gillespie, a guest on the show, heard Pizzi ad libbing during a commercial break and, impressed, asked him to play on a record date. After the Gillespie session Pizzi was invited to make his own album. A versatile performer, he plays saxophones and bassoon as well as flute.

The exotic mood of One For Teenie contrasts effectively with the moderato, swinging bag immediately established in Upsidasium, a piece written by Wood a couple of years ago. This comparatively uncomplicated work has an engaging melodic line that is admirably supported by Dumas and by the subtle, unflaggingly pulsating drummer, Billy Higgins. The solos are shared by Wood and Dumas on this beguiling trio track, in which the leader's intelligent use of dynamic contrast is a notable feature.

Star Doom is Tony's composition, its title a combination of the word stardom and the first half of his last name. Dumas wrote the original version some four years ago, revised it slightly before this session took place, and plays superbly throughout both as rhythm section component and soloist.

Serling Silver is a double word play designed to point up the dual influences of Rod Serling and Horace Silver. "I think we moved into some of those twilight zones, some of those same outer limits," says John, "and of course, although my main influences have been Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, I have always had the greatest admiration for Horace Silver.”

"Billy Higgins had the original idea here, to just do something really improvised all the way. He had a rhythmic structure he wanted to provide, but from that point on it turned out to be a joint effort."

With Roy Pizzi returning, this time on soprano saxophone, the performance leads the group into unpredictable and literally uncharted territory. Wood emphasizes that no editing was needed, despite the totally spontaneous nature of the performance.

Higgins by now should be familiar to anyone who has followed the jazz scene for the past decade or two. A charter member of the original Ornette Coleman Quartet, he later worked with Sonny Rollins, Cedar Walton, Clifford Jordan and Jimmy Heath as well as countless other combos in Los Angeles, New York and Europe. He is as much at home with the kind of music created here as he was with Ornette back in the late 1950s.

To sum up, it might be fitting to repeat a comment made by John Wood to Lee Underwood: "My progress will be a gradual fade-up, slow but very steady. Whatever recognition I get will be built on something solid and human, not something that was created and supplied for economic reasons.”

Actually John didn't have to say it and I didn't need to quote it. You can hear the evidence very clearly for yourself in these five compelling iIIustrations of the Wood brand of integrity."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In 1975, my 20 year old sister died. I wrote to John Wood, having listened to "Say Hey" and "Until Goodbye" incessantly. His music soothed my soul. His response to my letter was exquisite. I still have it; though I wish I had those 2 albums now.

Thank you for writing about his music. He is an inspired jazz pianist, and I never tired of his style.

I am incoherent on a computer, and I play so much better with pen. I'm really not sure what a blog or a tweet is, but I read your article with a full heart.

Any information you can provide me with his music, please keep me informed of any news on John Wood.

Thank you,
Deborah Chester Geary