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Interview | Charlie Wood
The Beale Street Hall of Famer now lives in the UK, building a new musical dynasty with jazz royalty
First published in the January/February 2019 edition of The American magazine
Hi Charlie! You come from Memphis, TN, how did your home town influence your musical tastes?
Completely and utterly. I feel very lucky to have come from Memphis. I grew up surrounded by wonderful musicians, pros and amateurs, playing & singing great music. Lots of different genres - blues, jazz, R&B, gospel, country, even classical - often being played by the same people. Memphis is a wellspring of musical talent and there were always lots of places to hear (and play) music, so it was an ideal environment for an aspiring young musician.
Jazz, blues and soul are said to be the purest American art forms. Do you think of yourself as a jazz musician, or as someone who crosses genres?
I guess both. All the jazz musicians I know are constantly crossing boundaries and mixing up genres. It’s a really good way to keep yourself thinking creatively. I don’t consider myself a serious jazz musician, but I love jazz & it’s always had a massive influence on my work.
Do you come from a musical family?
Yes I do. Everybody in my family sings and plays an instrument, although I’m the only one crazy enough to do it professionally
You’ve lived and performed in the UK and US - do audiences and musicians differ on both sides of the pond?
I’d say that good audiences are the same everywhere, but I suppose there are certain national tendencies. For one thing, UK audiences seem to like a lot of talking thrown in with the music. If I talked that much on stage in the US, somebody would probably yell out, ”Shut up and sing!” I think UK audiences would find it rude if I didn’t tell them a little something about each song, which is lovely once you understand it. UK audiences also seem extremely well informed about music and musicians (sometimes even more so than I am, which is annoying), but that’s true for the best US audiences as well. I’d say US audiences are much less inhibited, much more ready to let go and have a good time. As far as differences among musicians, there are certainly regional and stylistic differences between different musicians all over the world, but that’s part of what makes music so interesting. There’s always going to be a strong bond and a lot of common ground between fellow musicians, but I’d say those connections are extremely strong between US & UK musicians. It’s kind of a mutual admiration society. Needless to say, if you come to the UK as an American musician, smugly confident that you’re more advanced or somehow more “authentic” than the locals, you’re in for a very rude awakening.
Where are your favorite places to play in the UK and the States?
I like playing anywhere they’ll have me. I try to bring some good vibes along with me if I can, but if they’ve got some there already, that’s even better.
And your favorite musicians and singers to work with?
Well, variety is the spice of life, not to mention the only way to expand and develop musically. However, I do have a special rapport, musically and personally, with the guys who have been in my rhythm section for the last two records. At least that’s what they tell me. I like playing with all good singers (one great female vocalist comes particularly to mind *) and find it pretty dreary playing with lousy ones, so I always try to ask beforehand.
What brought you over to Britain, and why did you choose to stay here?
The irresistible lure of London is what brought me here. It’s the most vibrant, diverse, musically active city on the planet. Love is why I stayed. Fortunately for me, the lady I’m in love with is a great musician herself, so she understands what it’s all about. (* Charlie is married to British jazz royalty Jacqui Dankworth.)
What do you miss from the US?
My family, my American friends, Memphis barbecue, and good Mexican food.
As you’ve mentioned, you’re married to a Brit - another famous jazz musician! Have you become Anglicized in any ways?
Yes and no. I think I was already a pretty advanced Anglophile before I arrived. I do think my accent has undergone some changes, to the point where I’m now incomprehensible on two different continents.
What do you and Jacqui both bring to your musical collaborations?
We’ve obviously got a lot of shared tastes and preferences, but in many ways we bring opposing elements into play, which is great & makes it all work. A duet isn’t like a group of background singers or a choral group. It’s no good having two of the same singer in a duet. The voices each have to complement one another, not by being similar but by supplying elements the other voice lacks. I think that’s something we do particularly well together, without even having to really think about it.
Your most recent album, Tomorrow Night, features some great new original songs and some covers that you make your own, especially ‘Killing Floor’. Can you tell us a little about it, how you recorded it and how you selected the covers?
12 bar blues is such a strong, familiar, durable form that it can be adapted & reimagined almost any way you like. Howlin’ Wolf’s song “Killing Floor” is a bitter lament about having failed to follow one’s “first mind” and missed the opportunity to escape a life of misery. Wolf’s gritty, razor-sharp vocals and the heavily distorted, hard-hitting sound of that recording really pack a wallop, so I wanted to find a rhythmically & harmonically more modern way to interpret the song while staying true to the visceral nastiness of the original. How’d we do?
You’ve been honored with a brass musical note on the Beale Street Walk of Fame in Memphis. How did that feel?
Grateful, and very deeply honored to be included among so many of my musical heroes. It’s a lot to live up to.
What’s next for you?
I’ve always wanted to do a big band record, so I might think about trying to make that happen.
Finally, what’s the best thing about being Charlie Wood?
Well, the hours can be pretty tough sometimes, but the food is fantastic.
For details of Charlie Wood’s tour dates, solo and with Jacqui Dankworth, and to find out more about his music, go to charliewood.us