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The Wee Trio: Full of Surprises

Geno Thackara By

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...the public just says you need to make a record every year 'cause you need to have something new and current. I'd rather spend two years developing and being sincere about what we're creating. —Jared Schonig
Don't be fooled by the name. The members of The Wee Trio are normal-looking and normal-sized guys, their ambition if anything is deluxe, and their compositional scope virtually limitless. While such a moniker can only keep them humble—not that they'd seem to need the help—they've always kept an outsized willingness to follow fascinating ideas and embrace the unexpected. Picture Al Pacino's sneaky lawyer in The Devil's Advocate explaining his unassuming appearance: "I'm the little guy. They don't see me comin.'" Past the friendly exterior, the multifaceted (and even more friendly) depth of the Trio's music sneaks up on you in much the same way.

The three drifted together from the Pacific coast, the American midwest and the Delta south, eventually all ending up in Brooklyn. Bassist Dan Loomis and drummer Jared Schonig quickly hit it off after meeting at New York's Eastman School of Music in 2008 and immediately felt something click. Their interest was piqued—and their future path unknowingly further cemented—the day they happened to see a stranger wheeling a vibraphone down the sidewalk, who turned out to be a neighbor across the street. Going over and saying hello to James Westfall made (to switch films for a moment) the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Juxtaposing odds and ends has been one of the Wee Trio's key strengths ever since they kicked off their remarkably assured debut with a Nirvana cover and threw in a tribute to Harry Potter. The restlessness and go-for-it attitude renders the cuteness of their name (and any respect for arbitrary musical boundaries) a bit of a joke. The light airy tone of vibes can get unexpectedly aggressive shadings from Westfall's brash mallet work, making an infectious complement to Loomis's often-percussive bass and the rock-and-roll energy of Schonig's drums. They definitely live under the jazz umbrella, but it's a mix that turns out widely accessible to open-eared listeners from other quite different camps.

Taking a break to chat from New York City before 2017's first mini-run of dates (the kind that's more a long weekend jaunt than an actual tour), Schonig sounds stoked to be expanding the sonic palette with some new players. "We did that a lot recently," he tells me. "We did a string this past fall where we played with different guest artists around the country—we played in L.A. with a great pianist out there called Josh Nelson, who guested on all the piano material that's on the record. Then we went to Chicago and played with a couple local guys, a great pianist named Reggie Thomas and great saxophonist, Geof Bradfield."

The presence of guests is the theme behind September's release Wee +3 (Bionic Records, 2016), which was a shift both surprising and perfectly logical for a group determined not to tread water. After beginning with a pair of complementary but different studio records, 2012 saw them making an unexpected (not least to themselves) left turn by paying eloquent homage to a master of unexpected left turns. Ashes to Ashes: A David Bowie Intraspective (Bionic, 2012) was a fresh batch of rock-goes-jazz reinventions as audaciously inventive as its subject. To change gears again, the following year made an opportunity to stop at a favorite venue in Loomis's hometown of St. Louis for the cooking-hot Live at the Bistro (Bionic, 2013), their purest jazz recording yet.

The next idea was to give the recipe a jolt of new flavors: Wee +3 is so named because it features three good friends sitting in with the band on three tracks each. Schonig explains, "we'd been writing this material and discussing who we wanted for this project for a while—at least a year, two years, till we finally got it. And then we actually recorded it at the end of 2015, I think, then it didn't come out until late 2016. Sometimes things just take longer. We finally got to do it in the studio we wanted to do it in, with the engineer we wanted, and the timing was also perfect with [trumpeter] Nicholas Payton because he lives in New Orleans."

Fabian Almazan dashes off plenty of fiery piano licks on the recording, but the most hot and heavy contribution comes courtesy of Nir Felder, whose guitar helps deliver on the rocking energy the Trio has always hinted at with their very un-rock-like instrumentation. New songs were composed with each of those voices and personalities in mind, and presenting the material onstage has been opening up all kinds of other tonal possibilities as well.

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