In 2011, Cliff Hines brought together young jazz and indie rock musicians for a night of music by David Bowie at One Eyed Jacks. James Westfall was among the musicians assembled, and he and the Wee Trio were already considering an album examining Bowie’s music from a jazz perspective. Ashes to Ashes suggests that if you wash 30 years of glam off of Bowie, durable songs remain.
The trio approaches Bowie’s catalogue with seriousness; unlike some tracks by jazz-band-on-rock the Bad Plus, there’s no sense that the Wee Trio’s riding the novelty of the enterprise. They spruce up the dramatic/sluggish “Sunday” from Heathen by playing with the dynamics, moving from a hypnotic murmur on Westfall’s vibes to a near-march by the end with bassist Dan Loomis and drummer Jared Schonig asserting themselves logically within the context.
Smartly, the trio brackets Ashes to Ashes with lesser known songs, making it easier to hear the Wee Trio’s place in the material. The album opens with “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” from Earthling, a harsh, aggressive song with distorted guitars riding programmed drum percussion, but since many gave up on Bowie after the sad albums that followed Let’s Dance, the song will be new to many. Schonig honors the original’s percussive heart with a series of tight rolls as part of the basic drum pattern, and Westfall’s vibes shed the noise and reveal a solid melody, although one that brings to mind a couplet from Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman”. Oops.
Throughout, there are smart arrangement touches—assigning the fuzz-tone guitar part in “The Man Who Sold the World” to the bass, the bass and drums drop out for the “I’m happy / hope you’re happy too” phrase in “Ashes to Ashes.” These and similar minor substitutions make meaningful changes and give the Wee Trio versions personality. The band never gets quite as out as I’d hope, but there’s plenty of adventure and invention in these tracks.