While Wee Trio’s third album is ostensibly built on the melodies of David Bowie, it’s hard not to hear the spirit of Frank Zappa throughout the 31 minutes of this set. Most obviously, vibraphonist James Westfall is reminiscent of the contributions Ruth Underwood, among others, provided the Mothers of Invention. Of Course, Westfall is a member of a distinguished jazz community of vibe players from Gary Burton and Milt Jackson to Tito Puente and Gregg Bendian.
But despite such references, Wee Trio isn’t best described as jazz/rock fusion. There’s no searing guitar leads and no electronic keyboards; the instrumentation is strictly acoustic. Because there are only three players on the set, drummer Jared Schonig has the freedom to show off some serious chops and fill out the space supporting Westfall’s interpretations of Bowie album tracks. Both overtly and subtly, bassist Dan Loomis anchors and connects Westfall and Schonig to give the six improvisations a cohesive form they recorded in one day in June 2011. Clearly, one day was sufficient as Wee Trio is one tight ensemble.
Other than “Ashes to Ashes” from 1980’s Scary Monsters, the song choices will probably be relatively unfamiliar to listeners who only know Bowie from his hits. There’s no obvious theme as to why the songs were chosen other than the selections resonated with the trio on one level or another.
The album opens with “Battle For Britain” from 1997, closes with “Sunday” from 2002, and the remaining three titles are from Bowie’s 1970s releases. “Queen Bitch” (1971), “The Man Who Sold The World” (1970), and “1984” (1974) represent Hunky Dory, Diamond Dogs, and, of course, The Man Who Sold The World, but only in the melody lines on Westfall’s vibes. Wee Trio makes no attempt to recapture any of the instrumentation, pace, or flavor of the original tracks. And there’s no reason that they should. Ashes to Ashes is not a tribute album, despite its title. While the melody lines may not be original, everything else on this collection is.
Bowie fans will likely pick up Ashes to Ashes due to the album title and song selections, and they will be pleased or disappointed depending on how sacred they hold the original recordings. Outside of purist circles, with luck, Ashes to Ashes will draw in a new audience for the musicianship and virtuosity of Wee Trio. They’re jazz, or real jazz, not electronica, not the stuff some folks are calling “smooth jazz.”
They’re a pleasure to hear whether you simply appreciate solid instrumental performances or want to study just how complex and experimental three players can be with only their heads, hearts, hands, and tools. For 31 minutes, forget Bowie. Then hit YouTube to find out more about a combo—to use that old term—you’ll want more of.