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Dan Loomis: On The Wee Trio and "Live At The Bistro"

Fiona Ord-Shrimpton By

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The idea for us of playing that kind of pop repertoire, it was never to get the immediate response of, “Oh I recognise that song, and I'm happy to be hearing that,” that's like a nice fringe benefit. —Dan Loomis
The Wee Trio, comprising Daniel Loomis: bass; James Westfall: vibraphone; Jared Schonig: drums, are a band to keep looking out for. Having released four impressive albums already, including the recent, Live at the Bistro, their star continues to burn slowly—as all true stars are bound. The Wee Trio is a component of a new musical breed of elegant fearlessness that can play anything and make it sound right.

In winter Skype interviews are just the best, you can sidestep potentially awful delays like nasal and stomach flu while imbibing ginger ale and prescriptive Saltine crackers (as required) without leaving the house, and still manage to have a great discussion. Dan Loomis eloquently located the current path of The Wee Trio and the direction the band may be heading.

All About Jazz: I'm possibly one of a small but growing number in the UK to hear your music. Nice to talk about how the influences of your era came through in your music? You'll appreciate that school age music listeners are not necessarily into David Bowie, but they might know him through their parents, through old MTV programmes, YouTube, or some well-placed designer label advert...

Dan Loomis: Right, that was a sobering moment for us actually, we started the group about 7 years ago, so for the first few years, we would go to high schools, and everyone would recognize the songs, although the music was quite old at the time, somehow it was still current with kids. And now, when we go into high schools— if we ask if anyone has heard about The Colonel, it's not on anyone's radar. So yeah, we're experiencing that very personally.

AAJ: But in a good way right?

DL: Well, it's great for us, because the idea for us of playing that kind of pop repertoire, it was never to get the immediate response of, "Oh I recognize that song, and I'm happy to be hearing that," that's like a nice fringe benefit, but the idea for us was always we're just playing the music that was in our ears. We all studied and dove way into how to play jazz, at some point in our high school and college careers and we got really nutty about learning how to swing, and learning about all that goes into that tradition. That doesn't change the fact that we grew up in early 80's, 90's, 00's— and that music was the music around us, and we love that music too, that's the music of our time. It made the most sense for us to be playing a lot of that music. It was the most honest thing for us to do, because it was the milieu --- the atmosphere we grew up in. If kids don't know it so much, it just tells you you're growing older, which we are. We're still happy that it's an honest expression of what we are hearing.

AAJ: The live sound is resonant on the album. There's a freshness about new American jazz bands in particular, that seems to be coming through again. You'll understand what I'm trying to say. In the UK, there was a sense of jazz stirring when Joshua Redman first came to Britain, he was one of the new lions for his era. Now there's a freshness about playing modern music in the jazz sense again that feels like the rediscovery he was implied with. The music seems to be as honest and fresh as jazz must have sounded when it first appeared. It seems to be a churning process, it's starting to come out again that young musicians are confident playing jazz in themselves again, would you agree? Or is that just a process because you're all gifted musicians, in a good band, have been playing together for a long time and know each other well enough to have that level of confidence.

DL: Hopefully that's a part of it, but yeah, I think you're exactly right, you put it in a really interesting way, that there's an honesty to it. That's something we all think and talk about a lot in the jazz genre, because some of the best feeling and infectious music is from the swing side of things, people playing music which has an incredible beat and drive to it. We all love music from the 50's-60's, when people were really swinging, earlier than that of course, but the period where people were stretching the music. If you've been into jazz at any point you'll love that period. You might not stay there, but you have a love for it. The challenge for us as musicians in the time we're in is to find that feeling but you can't just do it again, because you can't repeat the same art and expect it to feel fresh. Have to find something that feels as fresh to you as what they were doing felt to them. That's the thing, if you love an artist, you can't just copy that artist. You have to copy or think about what that artist would have done in your era. If you're just copying the artist then you're making still born art/music.

Yeah, I think that experience of Joshua Redman, he was able to find a sound in swing/groove music, an experience distinctly of the 90's. He's always able to find a sound that is distinct, exciting to his time. And that's what we're trying to do, we're always trying to find things that speak to the era that we're in. And from that if we can find a way to get that infectious groove and drive of jazz into that, then for us that's a winning combination.

AAJ: It's difficult to find. All the old voices in jazz—the older jazz musicians have passed or they are 'at the door.' What happens now for us listening is that we either play all the old Blue Note albums, or we as listeners are trying to find those new voices that speak to us in an individualistic way. Listening to you it's nice to hear that band sound, that you're growing, there's a sound you're aiming for and a collective voice that's not going to die off in 3-4 albums.

DL: That's absolutely our plan. We have a very long view with this band, always planning a few albums ahead. But I'm glad that comes through in the album somehow. That's great to hear, that's a great compliment.

AAJ: One of the interviews you did on YouTube, a promo talking about the making of the Bowie album:

You were saying you were thinking of Jimi Hendrix Stevie Wonder, or Shostakovich. What would a Shostakovich jazz album sound like?

DL: There actually is a great Shostakovich album, this bass player Michael Bates, has a band called Outside Sources, the album is called "Acrobat: Music for, and by, Dmitri Shostakovich," and it sounds wonderful. And the great thing about it is if we did a Shostakovich album it would sound totally different. Yeah, it's still on the table for us to do that. It's nice to be sort of the first one in, so we may not do it because Michael Bates has done it already. I feel like it would be a valid artistic statement because Michael has his interpretation that is as reflective of his sound as it is of Shostakovitch, if not a lot more.

That's the way the Bowie project was for us. If you are a die-hard Bowie fans and sing along with the hits and you buy our album you might be a little disappointed, mostly the tunes are our sound through the canvas and the excitement of David Bowie. Shostakovich for us would be very interesting because his music has a real inner angst, and suppression to it because of the conditions he was working under, where he was trying to write revolutionary music at the same time that he was being held up as the figure head of the regime. He was really working from the inside in a way that must have been really painful for him. So, that's not an exact parallel with the experience of jazz but that's a lot of the experience of jazz, where it's like it comes from the African-American experience in America, which is an experience of oppression, which has that sort of longing and kind of an inner drive within it.

For us it would really be an experience of travelling more than anything else, like seeing what that feels like. If you're already a jazz musician and you're serious about it, you tap into that feeling within the music whether you're Afro-American or not. It's not in- genuine to tap into the feeling of the music even though you didn't experience it personally.

AAJ: No and the thing is you studied in New Orleans anyway, so you've gone to source and you know what it feels like to be in an environment which is steeped in history and you everyone can tell you stories...

DL: Yeah, exactly. We have all been to these places, and talked to all these people. It doesn't compare to going through it but at some point it becomes a musical gesture, rather than a personal gesture. Would be an interesting global travelling experience to compare that feeling of longing you have in jazz from the Afro- American experience with that feeling of longing that Shostakovich had as a revolutionary within the regime of the USSR, and I think it would yield some incredible results, and really dynamic, he has his heart on his sleeve so much in his music, so dissonant and strident in a like a personal, expressive way, it's not dissonant in an alienating way. It's when you hear his dissonances they are attractive, they draw you in.

AAJ: Interesting to find out how you would play as a trio. Where would vibes come in on that?

DL: Yeah, drums and bass would have fun yeah. James tends to gives me a lot of freedom in the lower register, if it's a solo he'll play, he'll throw it out in the lower register, but usually he lets me handle that pretty exclusively, which is very nice of him.

AAJ: So with the live album, little bit of old stuff, a bit of Bowie. Are there reasons why you chose the tunes you did for this live album?

DL: To be honest, the way the live album ended up sounding was a little bit of a surprise to us because we just played most of the set that we've been playing over the last year, which just evolved from the songs that we like to play the most and which sound the best with the band. And so our goal was to capture the live feeling of the band. Which we did. And we were kind of surprised in a sense at how traditional it sounded, or it can be interpreted as sounding traditional. We did a lot of songs that swing, we did this old song "Cherokee," with our new arrangement, but it's one of most played songs in jazz. I was very, very nervous about opening a jazz album with that, we didn't want to come off as neoclassical at all. We were surprised about how much of that was in our music, because all of our albums have been a little more rock-orientated, a little more explicitly progressive. Actually kind of fun that we really connect with that tradition. We feel like we sound good doing it and we feel it's our best sounding album.

AAJ: The album is so clean, so precise; you sound as fresh as a 21st century Modern Jazz Quartet. Hasn't really been a proliferation of standout vibe bands in the current era, in terms of small band format.

DL: Yeah right, and the big surprise to us with this band, we put it together just because we like playing together, but it actually has never been done before, as far as I know there's no recorded album with a trio with vibes, bass and drums.

AAJ: So is it just that you knew each other, not a pre- determined band?

DL: It actually came together, we knew each other very well, drummer and I went to school together at, Eastman School of Music, and we had just moved to Brooklyn got an apartment together. James just happened to live across the street. We had gotten together and played a few times. James called me and asked if we could put a tour together. His vision was to put together a quartet, but the Guitar player was unavailable. As we were booking the dates we just thought it would be easier just to do a trio. We actually booked a lot of gigs under the name quartet. So if you want to make up an outlandish story about how the guitar had gotten drunk, and we had to kick him out of the band. Stories like that floating around, sown all over the Mid- West. Very much organic, almost accidental.

AAJ: Works incredibly well, it's like a happy accident. The closest upcoming sound I can liken you to is the sound Aaron Diehl and Warren Wolf have.

DL: Oh yeah right, I love Aaron Diehl's playing, haven't heard that particular group but I've heard those guys a lot, sure that sounds fantastic playing.

AAJ: Nice to know the vibes isn't frowned upon any more. Vibraphone bands were often stereotyped with thoughts of over- intellectual gents and smoking rooms. Now it's rock fans and kind of preppy types who listen, even Lady Gaga has a vibes player! There's a melange, a side effect of being in our era, but a good side effect.

DL: Influence of MJQ was so strong, biggest vibes voice for a long time, may be biggest in history MJQ was the stereotype was incumbent on vibes players to break away from somehow.

AAJ: What are you doing next, any plans for Europe?

DL: We'd love to get over to Europe. Hopefully, in about 12 months from now we have some places in Germany and the Czech Republic that we'd like to play. And there's a great place in London, Ronnie Scott's we'd like to go to. We'd love to get in there. It's always tough, need to talk to some friends, it's tough to make it over to the UK, as far as I can tell, not so many places to play, not so much in an immediate area.

We recently started a project our arranging our music for big band + The Wee Trio. An opportunity to give this project its maiden voyage presented itself on our recent tour to California. We had previously visited a high school in Sacramento called Rio Americano and we were floored by the musicianship and musicality of the students there. It can be quite sobering to hear how seriously high schoolers are dealing with the jazz language these days. And Rio Americano's program is right at the top of schools out there. So we called them up and asked if they would be interested in debuting some of our arrangements with us while we were in the area. Turns out that they were excited to do it and the timing worked out perfectly. br />
It was an exciting challenge to take the sound of The Wee Trio, which can be very compact, and stretch it to encompass a big band. The members of the band each ended up taking a somewhat different tack make this work. I chose to delve in to our 'minimalist' sound and borrow some language from Steve Reich, Phillip Glass and other prominent American minimalist and do an arrangement that stays close to our sparse sound... just on a larger scale. James went the other way and arranged one his pieces to have a real orchestral scope.... and really used all the colors of the big band (including Jared on marimba!). Jared was more right down the middle, taking one the groups most infectious pieces (his tune, White Out) and making it even more propulsive and kinetic using the larger ensemble. So there was really a big range to the styles of big band writing. We were thrilled to have the students at Rio dig into all the material so enthusiastically and well! The director told us privately afterwards that the charts were not really at a high school level .... we were lucky to have an exceptional high school dealing with them!

AAJ: It seems like you do a lot of clinics? What is your favorite story from doing a clinic?

DL: Well, a story that always sticks out in my mind is one the first clinics that we did as a band. We had played a late gig the night before and had stayed out even later hanging. From our perspective, the clinic came brutally early, something like 9am (which we are used to now, but just seemed cruel at the time). But we dragged ourselves out of bed and mustered the consciousness to play some music. We played in a big college auditorium. We had just gotten to the 'question and answer' part of the workshop. A few questions in, from way up in the back row, we called on a guy and he asked, "So do you guys feel like you are basically living the dream?" Which is a very complicated question for a group of groggy, slightly hung-over jazz musicians traveling thousands of miles across the country in a compact car! Most of us gave measured answers that reflected the pros and cons of life on the road. Jared, to his everlasting credit, "Hell yeah, I'm living the dream!" and went on from there.

That story always stayed with me. It reminds me that as hard circumstances seem at the time (and believe me, there are some real challenges to taking a bass, vibraphone and three people across the country a few times a year) that I am leading exactly the lived that I dreamed about when I was in high school. So I really carry that with me when I am talking to high schooler about their dreams....

AAJ: You call your sound sparse, but as well as elegance it's a strong, wee measure.

DL: Yeah (laughs) it's funny we called the band The Wee Trio, and people usually think it's a terrible name but we think Wee is a great word.

AAJ: Can I ask you why you called yourself The Wee Trio, do any of you have Scottish heritage?

DL: None of us are Scottish. For one, I just love the word. I love words that have no Anglo or Latin traceability, purely character words. Not sure of the Scottish roots or the entomology of the word, if it comes from something clear. Works well with the group. Most of the groups that are sort of like us are usually piano trios. Even with the best, most open pianists, tend to be dominated by the pianist, because he has so much information at his 10 fingertips, they can play all the bass lines, all the rhythms, melodies, if the pianist wants to and he's good, he can play them just by himself. Piano trios, often end up sounding like hyper- pianos. Ahmad Jamal is an incredible exception, almost unparalleled I would say at how he can make his band sound like a band. But Oscar Peterson as much as I love him, and as much as I love Ray Brown, there's definitely a good 80% of the time his band just sounds like an extremely, beautifully expanded piano.

AAJ: But isn't that ego? The Wee Trio seem to be loud characters in the fun sense, rather than the "hey look at me" sense.

DL: That's the idea. We chose the word Wee because Wee implies a bit of litheness, and agility, and an ability to each of us has a little role, none of us to have dominant, "I'm taking over the band" role, to each have a democratic, smaller say in how the music was going to sound. Wasn't just the vibes or just the drums, we all have moments of being bombastic and being really out there, but in general it's all about the group sound created equally by the three of us.

AAJ: It strikes you in the sound of the music; you all have an equal share of understanding between each other. The Intro's that you do on the album are nice, to hear each voice separately, and given their moment outside the solos.

DL: Yeah, we like that a lot about the album. We've done that live for a long time but we'd never recorded it and we feel like it came out really nicely on the album. You get a chance to hear each individual voice and then be joined by everyone else.

AAJ: There's a linguistic element to it because If you're naturally a person who appreciates jazz or a jazz musician you understand you're listening for different voices to recognise. But when you are a casual listener, to be able identify someone new, and to know that it's them, and then to be able to recognise them in other bands, it's important to capture that sound for yourself in your own ear as a listener.

DL: Yeah absolutely, I didn't even think of that. That's a really good observation. So many amateur lovers of jazz who wouldn't be able to tell you what the bass was doing or vibes might be doing, they just hear a great group sound.

AAJ: Yeah, and they know it's you. They can say, "OK I've heard that guy play here and I can pick that sound out now" and they might not know what chords you're playing, don't know if it's a diminished 7th, a major 6th or an augmented second but they can recognise you as the player and they choose because they can say they like your sound— specifically.

DL: ... "I like the sound of the instrument," yeah, that's fantastic.

AAJ: A collective sound that stems from you all being composers I think...

DL: The Wee Trio is a band of composers yes. From our formation, each member has brought tunes and ideas to the table- -it has always been very much a collective. People often ask us how our writing styles fit together. What has been interesting for us is that, although we each have a very individual voice as composers, our repertoire ends up having a remarkably consistent sound in performance. I think a lot of that has to do with the effect of our arrangements on the songs. The band has a commitment to never playing a song the same way twice. So most of our arrangements actually evolve onstage. This means for one that they are not set in stone; they evolve in each performance. It also means we usually arrange our tunes without talking about it. Talking about the music is an unspoken last resort for us. We always try to present ideas and hammer out arrangements by communicating musically in performance. This has created a very cohesive sound for the band that absorbs all of our composerly styles into a consistent vibe.

AAJ: What are you going to do for your next album?

DL: You know we have a lot of things bouncing around. One of the concepts we're talking about now is an album of 3 suites. Where we invite some of our best friends, bring in three people, people who have inspired us most musically, to each come in and be guest artists. We'll write a suite of 3-4 movements for that person. With the idea of having something a little more structural. Our music up to this point has been pretty open and very improvisational, and very much anything can happen. We want to bring that feeling into this too, but we just want to give ourselves a chance to be a little more composerly, and try out some new textures, try out a little bit a wider palette, classical textures that you get in modern music. More highly composed textures that you get in modern jazz.

AAJ: Do you all teach when you aren't gigging?

DL: We all teach a bit. I have 2 wee ones at home, so I have less time in the day. I do a lot of private instruction in Brooklyn, I teach cello, bass, guitar. Jared has a teaching job at a local school. And James just started teaching at University of New Orleans, so we keep busy.

AAJ: Is there an opportunity for big band, if funds allowed to do a big band with big names as well?

DL: We can talk about that. We've started doing this big band project on the road, we very well may do that. Some of the other guys in the band are a little more Gung ho about it, more than I am. I feel that that is one of those sort of tricky areas, big band has been done well so much. Typically big band is a really old sound. People like Darcy James Argue, Michael Webster, are really good at making it sound fresh and new. But they have worked really hard and thought a lot about how to make it sound current. We don't want to do anything that sounds too nostalgic.

AAJ: Stefon Harris, is a vibe player with modern big band with vibes, he does a lot of experimenting with textures and big suites of music that takes you on a journey that isn't nostalgic, ok he is in the tradition, but he brings it forward. I can imagine you guys doing something like that. Current and classic at the same time.

DL: Yeah, we can imagine it too. I'm sure after we do this debut of big band in Los Angeles we'll be excited about it and want to experiment more. If we can find that voice that feels personal, feels current and relevant, would be really fun to do.

AAJ: Are there modern rock groups, other acts that you would like to do as new arrangements/ larger ensemble. Not necessarily a jazz repertoire, not saying the music of Miley Cyrus, but something with a backbone to it that you can rip up on a larger scale.

DL: We've talked about a lot of different artists. I don't know if we'll ever do another album like the Bowie album, you know, just one artist. We certainly like to incorporate new artists into the repertoire. Artists that we've talked about and a name who's come up a lot is, Sufjan Stevans, out of Brooklyn who is writing really deep and infectious great music. We talked about Jimi Hendrix, is an older throw back, a lot to dig into. Don't know what the other guys think about this but the drummer loves Rage Against the Machine, which is heavily rock, but full of political lyrics, and just in terms of the incredible groove. Love to find a way to tap into something like that.

AAJ: When I read the track "Sabotage" was on the album it reminded me of the Beastie Boys, nobody seems to visit their music in jazz, it would be good as big band.

DL: Oh yeah, well that's the new in-thing about it, on the surface most of the stuff that's hip hop or rap like that, it's so lyrically focussed that it's tough to play it instrumentally. But yeah that could be great, I love the Beastie Boys.

AAJ: Sounds like you have lots of projects in the pipeline.

DL: Yeah, we've got the next few albums, not mapped out but we have the possibilities for them mapped out. We have a long vision with this band and like to plan ahead. I figured jazz careers that are successful are typically long, and we like playing together so we're in it for the long-haul.

AAJ:That's great to hear. There's never been that much money in playing Jazz so it's good to know people are still putting themselves out for it.

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