The music of David Bowie might seem an unlikely subject for a tribute by an all-instrumental jazz group, but on its new CD Ashes To Ashes -- A David Bowie Intraspective, the Wee Trio digs into the Thin White Duke's catalog with intriguing results. Featuring interpretations of six songs ranging from the reasonably well-known (the title track from Bowie's album The Man Who Sold the World) to the relatively obscure ("Battle of Britain" from the electronica-influenced Earthling), Ashes to Ashes has been getting favorable reviews both in and out of the jazz press.
This weekend, St. Louis listeners will get a chance to hear some of the Wee Trio's interpretations of Bowie played live, as the group performs on Friday and Saturday at Jazz at the Bistro (3536 Washington Avenue, 314-289-4030). Wee Trio bassist Dan Loomis said the Bowie project came about because the group wanted to do something completely different for their third recording. "We had done two albums of mostly original material, but we really liked how the band approached music from other composers, and we were looking for 20th and 21st century composers whose work we could address as a canon," he explains.
The gig at the Bistro represents a homecoming for Loomis, who grew up in the St. Louis area, living in Alton; O'Fallon, MO; St. Charles; and Chesterfield and graduating from Principia High School. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in music from SIU-E, studying with bassist Tom Kennedy, pianist Reggie Thomas and guitarist Rick Haydon, and then got his master's degree from the Eastman Conservatory of Music in Rochester, NY. Loomis then moved to New York and settled in Brooklyn, where he met vibraphonist James Westfall and drummer Jared Schonig and in 2007 formed the Wee Trio. They put out their first recording, Capitol Diner Vol. 1, in 2008, and followed up in 2010 with Capitol Diner Vol. 2 Animal Style.
Initially, Loomis says he, Schonig and Westfall had considered a variety of composers, ranging from rock musicians such as Paul Simon and Jimi Hendrix to classical composers including Gabriel Fauré and Dmitri Shostakovich. Then Westfall suggested Bowie, based in part on a one-off tribute show he'd just done down in New Orleans. "We knew his hits, like most people, but we were a little reticent," says Loomis. "But as we listened to more of his music, it became apparent right away that he traversed the musical ground of the 21st century."
Once they settled on Bowie, "we all just brought in three or four songs we thought would work for the group," says Loomis. "I got his discography, put it on my iPod and listened to it for a few weeks," searching for "songs I though we could do something with, songs that would resonate with us and the way we improvise together."
Ultimately, though, they decided to steer clear of Bowie's best-known tunes. At first, "I was kind of keen to do "Space Oddity," Loomis says, but although the hits are "fun to play, the most obscure songs, because they're less familiar, made it easier for us to stretch out more."
The final results still should be recognizable to Bowie fans, he says. "I feel like they sound pretty different from the originals, but at the same time, you can identify the original melodies and harmonies. Those aren't really obscured, but we tried to let the personality of the group come though pretty strongly."
"As a band, we tend to start with pretty simple source materials," Loomis continued. "We try to have the abstraction be more of a performance thing. As we play it more and more, we can improvise and add textures."
Although those who come to the Bistro to hear the Wee Trio will get an ample helping of music from Ashes to Ashes, Loomis says they'll be mixing in both older and newer songs, too. "We really love playing the Bowie material, but we're not trying to do all Bowie stuff while we're on the road. We're working on some new originals, and also pulling out some things from our catalog."