The jazz trio still don't live in the same city, and long-time New Orleanian James Westfall says things wouldn't be much different if they were.
Even with the best-intentioned audiences, The Wee Trio changes its set to play festival gigs.
“t’s always about keeping it upbeat,” James Westfall says. “I don’t think we ever play a ballad at a festival.”
It’s hard for any jazz band to draw audiences into the intimate moment that a ballad implies under the best of circumstances, and in a distraction-filled setting like Jazz Fest, it’s a challenge that frequently isn’t worth taking. For The Wee Trio—Westfall’s airy vibes, Dan Loomis’ upright bass, and Jared Schonig’s low-impact drums—the lack of an arresting instrument like a screaming sax heightens the test.
The Wee Trio began while Westfall lived in New York from 2005 to 2007. They enjoyed playing together enough that they kept the band going after he returned to New Orleans in 2007, but they didn’t play so much that he had to re-think living in New Orleans. “In New York, you can only play twice a year and get people to come to your gigs,” he says. They toured so that they could play more often, doing three or four nights in a row and the occasional week. It’s tempting to think that they could play more if they were together more, but Westfall is realistic.
“In a perfect world, The Wee Trio would be full-time, but I don’t think right now there’s a market for us to do what we do more. I think we’d be playing the same amount of shows if we all lived in the same city—unless we were in New Orleans, where we could play once a month and have a chance at a weekly gig. But we’d be touring the same amount.”
Their four albums have been well-received, but not so well-received that they became road rats. Instead, they play regularly though not frequently, and the group is part of the members’ musical lives but not the center of them.
The Wee Trio will play Jazz Fest’s Zatarain’s/WWOZ Jazz Tent Saturday at 12:15 p.m., and their 2013 album Live at the Bistro more representative of the band than 2012’s Ashes to Ashes: A David Bowie Intraspective. On the live album, the setlist includes Bowie’s “Queen Bitch,” but it also features the standards “Cherokee” and “There is No Greater Love,” as well as original material written by everybody in the trio. Schonig’s quick, light, even hands can evoke the clicking of programmed percussion as he does on Ashes to Ashes, but Live at the Bistro shows that to be part of a complete arsenal of drummer skills, and he swings as easily and with the same authority as he pushes the beat with steady intensity. The original “Sabotage” confirms—as Ashes to Ashes suggests—that rock ’n’ roll’s as much a part of the band’s musical inner life as jazz, even though there’s nothing obviously rock about it.
The versions of “White Out” and “Queen Bitch” on Live at the Bistro point to the band’s musical restlessness. Both vary significantly from the versions that appeared on the trio’s earlier albums. “We’ll start adding in new chords or start doing in with a new groove or at a different tempo, or we’ll change up the solo section and reharmonize some of the chords so it will have a different sound altogether,” Westfall says. “If songs can’t change, they get weeded out,” and one such song was “Ashes to Ashes,” the Bowie song that gave that album its name.
Last year, Westfall moved from New Orleans to Nashville, where he lives now. He’s faced with the paradox that many musicians face—that this is a great time to be creative and a terrible time to get paid. He visited Nashville and saw more opportunities there than he had in New Orleans, and made the move. So far, it has paid off to a limited extent in that he has played on a few sessions, and as of the time we talked, he was scheduled to go on tour this summer with ’70s star B.J. Thomas. If nothing else, Nashville makes touring with The Wee Trio easier.
“We had a gig in Wisconsin and it was a nine-hour drive. St. Louis is a five-hour drive. Chicago is an eight-hour drive. Atlanta is a two-hour drive. New Orleans is a nine-hour drive. It’s nice and centrally located, as opposed to being in New Orleans, when I basically had to fly anywhere.”
Ashes to Ashes was an entry point into The Wee Trio for many fans who were not normally into jazz. “For about a year, we’d have at every club we’d play at, we’d have
a table or two of David Bowie fans. You could pick them out because they wore their David Bowie T-shirts, and they’d start requesting songs. When we did the song ‘Ashes to Ashes’ in Austin, there was a whole table singing along. And that’s pretty cool, but ….”