The Wee Trio – Ashes to Ashes: A David Bowie Intraspective – Bionic 00005, 31:18 ****:
(Dan Loomis – bass; James Westfall – vibraphone; Jared Schonig – drums)
When thinking of jazz interpretation, David Bowie may not be the first artist which comes to mind. But his legacy and discography is deep (over 25 albums since 1967, not mentioning live releases and soundtrack material), and his chameleonic talents have fostered a range of styles and musical characteristics (as well as characters). Last year vocalist Federica Zammarchi issued a jazz/rock homage, Jazz Oddity, and long-time Bowie keyboardist Mike Garson delivered a crossover tribute, Bowie Variations, which combines, pop, classical and jazz. This year jazz band The Wee Trio revises Bowie on the 31-minute, six-track, all-instrumental Ashes to Ashes: A David Bowie Intraspective.
Make no mistake: this is not a fusion effort which blends Bowie’s rock with jazz overtures. Vibraphonist James Westfall, bassist Dan Loomis and drummer Jared Schonig utilize Bowie’s tunes as a starting point for creative jazz which is sometimes melodic, sometimes nearly strident and always within the realms of modern jazz. Those expecting to hear Bowie’s radio hits redone as pop jazz will be disappointed: there is no “Let’s Dance,” “Fame” or “Space Oddity.”
The half-hour program commences with probably the least known Bowie cut, “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” (from Bowie’s 1997 project Earthling). Bowie’s original is raucous, layered with heavy electronic percussion and loud electric guitar with a post-grunge industrialized tone. Schonig invokes the tune’s percussive core with a series of taut drum rolls which also echo the guitar shards found in the Bowie version, while vibes reveal the melody hidden for the most part in Bowie’s harshness. There is an abrasive middle section which explores Bowie’s dissonance but generally “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” sustains an intensified tunefulness. The group follows with another number which flits between lissome melodicism and rockier aggression, “Queen Bitch,” one of Bowie’s early ‘70s glam-rockers. Westfall skillfully uses vibes to take the role customarily assigned to guitar, while Loomis applies bass to play the main theme and showcase some stunning improvisation. “Queen Bitch” changes dramatically when Westfall adds a long solo, before the trio swings back into the chorus to forcefully finish the piece.
One of Bowie’s more emotive titles is “The Man Who Sold the World.” Hit covers by Lulu, Midge Ure and most famously Nirvana have helped keep the poetic piece in the pop culture topography. The Wee Trio preserves Bowie’s elegiac quality and his inspired melody. Loomis introduces the theme usually performed on guitar while Schonig imparts a Latin percussive edge which also comes from Bowie’s arrangement, but from there the threesome do some resourceful traveling of their own, resulting in a buildup highlighted by vibes which go against the rhythmic time and also enter double time. Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” is polished synth-pop firmly placed in the early 1980s. The Wee Trio turns the tune into an investigative vehicle which shakes with energy (the riotous middle segment is almost avant-garde) but also brings out Bowie’s harmonic and melodic sensibilities, while wisely ignoring Bowie’s funk/dance treatment and dispensing with Bowie’s calculated denseness and bitter cynicism. The album concludes with interpretations of the Orwellian-derived “1984,” which has a sharply textured approach and is a fine example of the trio’s thorough musical chemistry; and a deft retelling of the relatively obscure “Sunday” (from Bowie’s 2002 release Heathen), where Westfall, Loomis and Schonig emphasize dusky melancholy and close out (as the record opens) with a powerful, rock-tinted portion.
From beginning to end, there’s no perception The Wee Trio is relying on trendiness. The trio explains in a short promotional video they did not necessarily have a strong desire to take on Bowie in a jazz perspective and spent time discovering which Bowie songs would best fit the trio’s personality as well as spark creative spontaneity. The outcome is 30 minutes of inventive jazz which works on its own merits while retaining Bowie’s spirit and self-assurance.
TrackList:  Battle for Britain; Queen Bitch; The Man Who Sold the World; Ashes to Ashes; 1984; Sunday.
—Doug Simpson