Wee Trio members are thinking big

Boston Globe, October 17, 2008

NEW YORK – They’re called the Wee Trio, but there’s nothing small about these three guys straight from the eclectic Brooklyn scene. Not their music, a free-spirited brew that works in Nirvana and Sufjan Stevens covers beside Thelonious Monk classics. And not their personality: From the Wee ones, who visit the Lily Pad tonight, emanates the goofy, endearing feel of buddies whose chemistry carries well off the bandstand.

It makes for a winning debut, as heard on the group’s album “Capitol Diner, Vol.I” – and all the more so for the instrumentation. With James Westfall on vibraphone, Dan Loomis on bass, and Jared Schonig on drums, the Wee lineup is one seldom seen in jazz. Virtually every vibes-fronted combo – whether led by Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Burton, Stefon Harris, or any other vibist of note – has featured piano or horns in the front line.

Point this out to the guys, though, and they respond only with bemusement, as if it were the first time they considered this pioneering aspect.

“I never really thought about that,” says Westfall, on the phone from New Orleans, where he moved with his fiancee last year. “I never really grew up listening to vibes players per se,” he adds. Growing up in Houston and attending that city’s High School for Visual and Performing Arts (which also produced pianists Jason Moran and Robert Glasper), he was a percussionist and pianist before settling on the mallets.

Sitting at the dining table in Loomis’s Brooklyn apartment, Schonig and Loomis expand on the point, happily interrupting each other as they go.

“Yeah, whenever you hear of a vibes-led group, there’s usually another chordal instrument – piano, guitar, whatever,” Schonig says.

“It’s kind of surprising, because it works so well,” says Loomis.

They explain that Westfall is as comfortable with four-mallet technique, which allows playing chords, as with melodies played with two mallets. “So you can go in any direction,” Loomis says. “Because it’s just a melodic line and a bass line and drum set, so you have this real three-way conversation. And it’s the best of both worlds, because you can go back to him playing four mallets and have this big lush sound.”

“It’s kind of the perfect response to the piano trio,” Loomis adds. “The piano trio is this intimate feeling, but it’s always dominated by the pianist because he has so much information. This is a little more democratic.”

The democratic impulse extends to the way the Wees pick their material. Aged 25 to 28 and raised variously in Texas, Missouri, and California, they don’t conceal their love of rock – the Nirvana nod, “About a Girl,” opens their album and often, they say, their sets – and the priority they place on rhythm and melodic clarity.

And their own compositions, which they describe in entertaining liner-note blurbs, invoke Mahatma Gandhi and classical sonatas, but also Harry Potter and a legendary South Dakota ghost known as Potato Creek Johnny.

Though forged in Brooklyn – where Loomis and Schonig moved after being roommates at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and where they found Westfall living across the street – the Wee Trio is at root a road band. In fact, though the three were already gigging together on the New York scene, Westfall proposed forming the trio for the specific purpose of going on a Rust Belt tour of provincial venues.

“It sounded like a terrible idea to me,” Loomis says. “But I loved playing with James, so I was like, OK, we might as well try it. And as soon as we got on the road together, it was just great.”

The Capitol Diner referenced in the title is, according to Wee Trio lore, a real establishment outside Harrisburg, Pa., where they forged their esprit de corps while figuring out the capitals of all 50 states on a map printed on paper placemats.

There is, in fact, a great deal of Wee Trio lore for a band this young, and the guys warn that the stories they tell between songs may contain elements of poetic license.

Joking aside, these are three serious musicians who believe they’ve found a vehicle for creative growth that’s as true to the jazz tradition as it is to their freewheeling tastes. On the new album they’re now recording, Westfall plays keyboards and glockenspiel along with vibes, and Schonig has a keyboard too. They’re working these into their live sets as well, experimenting with new layers of texture.

But they intend to keep it legible, for a fundamental reason: “It’s hard to rock out when things get complex,” Westfall says.

And though their work shows intact commitment to the exploration and improvisation of jazz, they promise more rock, not less.

“Oh, yeah,” says Schonig. “We rock a lot.”

“We did, and we do, continue to intend to rock,” Loomis says, laughing.

They conclude in unison: “Oh, yeah.”