When we last heard from Memphis ex-pat Charlie Wood, with 2009's Flutter & Wow, the longtime Beale Street fixture had recently moved to London. Three years later, with Wood releasing the new Lush Life (April 17th in U.S. after a March 12th U.K. release), he's more settled in his new home.
Touring had taken Wood to Britain many times, where he built a fan base and connections. London's a good jazz town, and Wood decided to give it a try. So far he hasn't looked back, and now Wood's roots in his new home have been deepened by a marriage a couple of years ago to English actress and jazz singer Jacqui Dankworth (the daughter of composer John Dankworth and Grammy-nominated singer Cleo Laine). According to Wood, speaking by phone from his new home about 50 miles north of London, he and Dankworth knew of each other before they knew each other, with Dankworth covering Wood's song "Lucky Charm" on one of her albums even before they met. The pair were later introduced by a mutual musical acquaintance. Recently, Wood has become Dankworth's musical director and a fixture in her band, while she sits in on his own shows occasionally.
Wood made his way as a sideman early on, touring the U.S. and Europe behind Memphis blues great Albert King, and then emerged as a leading figure on Beale, where he played a nightly residency at King's Palace Café for years when he wasn't recording or touring. In England, though, Wood has avoided the kinds of residencies he was known for in Memphis.
"Beale was great to me, both in terms of honing my chops and, certainly, earning a living," Wood says. "And while people certainly go to Beale Street to hear music, they don't always know who the musicians are they're hearing. These days, I want to play shows where my name's on the ticket."
But while Wood is based in London now, Lush Life, like Flutter & Wow before it, is being released by Memphis' Archer Records. Wood recorded the album — with Dankworth producing and dueting on "Alone Together" — during three sessions in January 2011 at Archer's Music + Arts Studio, while Wood and his wife were in town visiting his family.
Wood says he visits Memphis as much as he can, with his parents and a sibling in town, though he notes he's "moving the mountain to me" with a coming family visit in England. On this particular trip, Wood hadn't planned to record.
"I think even Ward [Archer] was surprised," Wood says of the Archer Records owner. But while Wood was in town, he and Archer decided to get him in the studio for a few days to see what would come of it. The result is a departure from Wood's other albums, partly by design and partly by necessity.
Wood's music has had a blues/R&B base but was more oriented toward sophisticated-yet-soulful jazz and pop, driven by his rich, dexterous vocals and warm Hammond B3 organ playing. But where Flutter & Wow focused on Wood's own witty, sharp-elbowed songwriting and his contemporary pop sensibility via versions of songs by Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello, Lush Life is a departure. It's Wood's first album of all covers, a "Great American Songbook"-style collection of standards. And it features the organ-identified Wood in a solo piano-and-voice context.
"I'm playing much more piano the last few years, partly because of the style I've been playing," Wood says. "I'm doing more, well, I wouldn't say straight jazz but pop-jazz, singer-songwriter jazz stuff. I didn't bring a B3 over with me. I have a digital organ, but I'd rather play a fake piano than a fake organ. And also most venues here have a baby grand piano."
As for the material, Wood says, "I had this deep songbook, partly from playing on Beale all those years. And it just seemed like a good time to do that."
The album has bluesy elements. Wood opens with a dizzying take on "Route 66" that's cocktail jazz veering into be-bop, mixing smooth vocals and hard piano. And the penultimate track is a strutting take on New Orleans legend Professor Longhair's "Tipitina." But more often the album's focus is on classic jazz and crooner pop.
The tinkling title track comes from Duke Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn, with other sources including Tin Pan Alley composer Jerome Kern ("All the Things You Are"), Broadway greats Lerner & Loewe ("On the Street Where You Live"), and jazz-pop giant Jimmy McHugh ("On the Sunny Side of the Street").
Even with this new album seeing daylight, Wood says he's itching to do another album with a band and featuring some of his original material. Along those lines, he's contemplating forming a new organ trio in England.
Wood isn't sure when the next project will be recorded or even where — "It might be interesting to record [in London]," he says — but is certain how it will come out.
"It will be on Archer," Wood says. "They've been very good to me. Most of my musician friends in London are jealous that I've got a label in Memphis that does more for me than the labels they have right down the street."