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Great Vibes: Nova NOLA and The Wee Trio

J Hunter By

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Despite the current iteration of the "Jazz is Dead" riff, it is impossible to throw a rock without hitting one of the music's latest wave of horn players, reed players, keyboardists, bassists or drummers. The one area that lacks ground-breaking new personnel in 2010 is "mallets" (vibraphone and marimba), although every recent generation has had its champion—be it Gary Burton, Mike Mainieri or Stefon Harris.

The newest demographic, however, may have found its advocate in James Westfall. The Thelonious Monk Institute alum wields the "keytar" in the prog-jazz group Bionica, but he plays vibes on two 2010 discs that repay attention and discussion.

Self Produced

Among many other activities, Steve Masakowski is the guitarist for the New Orleans jazz/rock outfit Astral Project. There's no question Astral's music is easy to move to, but bossa nova was never a major player in its repertoire. This is why Nova NOLA's debut disc is such a bold move. While the music on Wetland is simpatico with classic bossa recordings, elements of Nova NOLA's instrumental approach don't just make the music different—they make it approachable for anyone who considers the style a bygone form.

The guitar that opens "Um Fraze" has an easy, relaxed feel synonymous with Jazz Samba (Verve, 1962), Charlie Byrd's collaboration with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. But rather than using the typical acoustic approach, Masakowski works the electric side of the street, giving the tune a ringing texture Byrd never did. And while Masakowski's sound may be unconventional, his compositions "Sombras en la Noche" and "Isla Mujeres" dovetail beautifully with the two Antonio Carlos Jobim pieces on Wetland, "O Boto" and "Girl From Ipanema." The title track gets an additional Nova NOLA spin from Ricky Sebastian, whose grooving drum work is pure Second Line.

Getz's solos had an almost drowsy ambiance, but Westfall's solo work is anything but somnolent. His overall aggression makes the music more muscular, literally adding steel to its structure, and he even makes things tribal with the two-part solo meditation, "Marimba-lude." Westfall's lyricism serves him well on the complex pathways of "Undiluted Values," as it does with the jam-filled take on John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "Norwegian Wood."

Floating on top of it all is Sasha Masakowski, whose airy vocals could easily be mistaken for the work of Esperanza Spalding. Her attack on "Um Fraze" and "O Boto" also calls up the memory of Flora Purim and Astrud Gilberto, and the fact that she sings the Jobim pieces in Portugese doesn't hurt at all. Sasha's duet with her father on "Mermaid" is so intimate and so special, while her vocalizations on "Sombras" and "Boto" show an expansive talent and a solid technical mastery. "Mermaid" and "Undiluted" are Sasha originals, proving the pen doesn't fall far from the tree.

Wetland is a full family affair: Sasha's brother Martin gives the set a pulsing bass sound while Steve's wife Ulrike contributes great keyboards to "Ipanema." But it is the effervescent union of the Masakowskis with Westfall and his mallets that makes Nova NOLA something to be listened to. Bossa is one genre that's never been synonymous with New Orleans, but after Wetland, that may change.

Visit Nova NOLA on the web.

The Wee Trio
Capitol Diner Vol. 2: Animal Style
Bionic Records

Vibes, bass, and drums. Even after the critical acclaim Capitol Diner Vol. 1 (Bionic, 2008) received, The Wee Trio's instrumental lineup still seems like one or two other musicians have gotten laid off. Capitol Diner Vol. 2: Animal Style shows that these three players are self-sufficient, even as the band's textural palate goes through some expansion.

"San Fernando, Pt. 1" literally opens inside a diner, with breakfast conversations being held over the sound of clattering plates and glasses. A bass can be heard somewhere in the background, sounding like someone's tuning had gotten on the radio; in actuality, it's Dan Loomis easing into the foundation figure that supports the piece. Westfall and drummer/composer Jared Schonig jump onto the figure and a sweet groove is established. The diner disappears as TWT's sound crystallizes and the disc gets down to business—animal style.

Westfall's attack is definitive. His solo on "The Oracle" is like a series of excamation points laid out in rapid fire, and he works one figure about a hundred different ways on "Wherever You Go, There You Are." Despite his inherent aggression, Westfall can also lighten his colors, as he does on the pastoral "Snow Day." What's more, Animal Style lets Westfall introduce some of the keyboard skills he wields in Bionica. A light synth accents Loomis' solo on the modern jazz rave-up "White Out," while Westfall's mini-Korg rounds out the hymn-like opening of Loomis' "Shepherd."

Schonig is a drummer who can get away with taking an opening solo, because he is both powerful and lyrical. As a result, he drives "Oracle" to a faster, darker place. He's a master of texture, too, as his hand-drumming on Aphex Twin's "Avril 14th" demonstrates. Loomis is just as resonant and fulfilling as ever, whether he's pumping out the funk on "Wherever" or getting blissfully romantic on "But Beautiful." The second tune shows how TWT takes ownership of a piece: the Jimmy van Heusen standard is still a waltz, but it's like no waltz pianist Bill Evans ever played.

The Wee Trio is essentially a three-man rhythm section, so overall aggression is to be expected. But these players share a marvelous sense of artistry, where everything they do shines with purpose and precision, even as the reboot of the Sesame Street staple "Pinball Number Count" shows the whimsy of Vol. is still in force. Where Vol. 1 came out of a blast of enthusiasm, Animal Style was sculpted as the band traveled and grew in front of a new audience every night. And from all indications, that growth curve is still going like a bat.

Visit The Wee Trio on the web.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Um Fraze; Wetland; Undiluted Values; Marimba-lude 1; O Boto intro; O Boto; Mermaid; Sombras En La Noche; Marimba-lude 2; Isla Mujeres; Girl From Impanema; Norwegian Wood; Sea.

Personnel: Steve Masakowski: 7-string guitar, guitar synthesizer; Sasha Masakowski: vocals; Martin Masakowski: bass; Ricky Sebastian: drums; James Westfall: vibraphone, marimba; Hector Gallardo: congas, bongos (3, 7); Scott Myers: pandiero (2); Nick Solnick: shaker (3); Ulrike Masakowski: keyboard (11).

Capitol Diner Vol. 2: Animal Style

Tracks: San Fernando, Pt. 1; The Oracle; White Out; Avril 14th; Wherever You Go, There You Are; Tig Mack Is Back In Santa Monica; Snow Day; The Tunnel; Shepherd; But Beautiful; Pinball Number Count; San Fernando, Pt. 2.

Personnel: James Westfall: vibraphone, mini-Korg, Vocorder; Dan Loomis: bass; Jared Schonig: drums.

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