David Bowie tribute albums are not uncommon, but one by a modern jazz trio raises eyebrows.
The Wee Trio is the kind of band that undermines conventional expectations of what a jazz group is, besides being outstanding musicians. The three released the Bowie album “Ashes to Ashes” in 2011, and though they have plenty of newer music, a couple of those tunes still turn up in their varied sets.
They will headline the Saturday night program at the CSUS Festival of New American Music.
The Wee Trio’s distinctive instrumentation – James Westfall on vibraphone, Daniel Loomis on bass and Jared Schonig on drums – gives it a unique sound and presence. It’s also one of the few jazz bands that started out with as much love for Nirvana as Monk.
While they’ve played versions of Kurt Cobain’s “About a Girl” and Sufjan Stevens’ “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid),” their interest in modern rock isn’t a gimmick. The trio is simply reflecting contemporary influences in the same way peers such as Jason Moran or Brad Mehldau do when they play Afrika Bambatta or Radiohead.
Schonig recently spoke by phone about the group’s origins and aspirations. He and Loomis were classmates at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and played side by side in multiple groups.
“We sometimes played eight hours a day, between school ensembles and people’s bands. We had a real tight connection musically and friendship-wise,” Schonig said.
They remained roommates in Rochester and then in New York City, where Loomis moved in 2005 a year ahead of Schonig. There a mutual friend told them about vibraphonist Westfall, who happened to live across the street, and they started playing together in a quartet with a guitar player. A small tour was booked in the Northeast, but when the guitarist couldn’t go, the three headed out anyway.
“We had such an amazing repertoire between the three of us that we decided to just keep it going as a trio, and the Wee Trio was born,” Schonig said. They made their first album, “Capital Diner Vol. 1,” in 2007.
The band’s sound evolved through playing together.
“We knew we wanted to do something new in the trio format. We weren’t sure what it would be, but after our first tour we knew what our sound was,” Schonig said.
They realized they wanted a rock vibe in a straight-ahead jazz setting. They could play rock covers in an acoustic jazzy way. They also wanted freedom in the arrangements.
“We wanted to let our individual personalities come through in the music and keep it open without boundaries as much we could,” Schonig said.
When a member brings an original song to the band, they don’t tell the others how to play it.
“There are things we write down that we expect to be played, but nothing is off-limits when we first start playing a tune,” Schonig said. “What we really dig about each other is that the creativeness of all three of us is what determines our group sound.”
Schonig said that through trial and error the band has figured out a sustainable model that works even though Westfall now lives in Nashville while he and Loomis still live in New York. They have started building in writing and rehearsal days at the start of their tours so they can develop new music.
They released their fifth album, “Wee + 3,” in September, the first time they’ve had guest artists record with them – pianist Fabian Almazán, guitarist Nir Felder and trumpeter Nicholas Payton.
“We’re trying to broaden our reach a little bit with this new record,” Schonig said. “We wanted to try something new creatively with the guest artists.
“We all have lives – musical lives (jobs) – outside of the Wee Trio, but as far as the Wee Trio is concerned, we’ve figured out a good business model for ourselves.” They get together between four and eight times a year for short tours playing markets where they’ve established a fan base.
“We’ve all kind of made it our goal, our passion, to make these kind of tours happen,” Schonig said.
The Wee Trio
What: The performance is part of the 39th annual Festival of New American Music at Sacramento State, which continues through Sunday.
When: 8 p.m., Saturday
Where: Capistrano Concert Hall, CSUS campus
Cost: Free admission; parking in PS1 is free after 7 p.m.