The Wee Trio: James Westfall, Dan Loomis, Jared Schonig
By Dan Gross
The Wee Trio is James Westfall (vibes) plus two Eastman alumni: Dan Loomis (bass), and Jared Schonig (drums), and they’re coming to the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, following their release of Wee + 3. While it’s mostly just the trio, a few special guests may join them at their sets tonight at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. in the Wilder Room.
Dan Loomis (Masters, 2004)
Tell us about your early life in music.
I was from a musical family. My parents both majored in music in college. I would say though my musical upbringing started when I began playing the scene in St. Louis. I’m from there, and it’s a music town. So I had a few mentors: Reggie Thomas, a great educator, and Rick Haden, a great pianist. Then there was Willie Aikens, a saxophone player who was a fixture on the local scene, for decades and decades.
Those guys were all really strong mentors for me, and I got a strong foundation in the roots of the music, and the importance of groove and connecting with an audience. That was my background.
St. Louis is known as a blues town. What was your introduction to jazz?
I didn’t really grow up playing the blues, but I play the blues now; it’s funny. In St. Louis, I grew up playing a lot of jazz. I got into jazz because I had a really dear friend – this pianist from school – when I was starting to play the bass, and we fell in love with jazz together, and started to go see all the gigs in town. If there was something great happening, we’d check it out.
There’s this guy in St. Louis, he’s a great bass player and he fixed all the basses in town, and his name is Jerry Cherry. He has a funny name, and he’s this crazy old guy. He had this sound from another era, he sounded like he was from the ‘50s. But he had all these chops too, and he could play anything, but he had a really authentic groove. I used to go see Jerry Cherry all the time.
What drove you to pursue music as a career, and what led you to Eastman?
I wanted to do music really early; I fell in love with it really quickly. Once I started playing bass in high school, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I studied in St. Louis, and then Reggie took me to this summer camp that Jeff Campbell directs, Birch Creek, to be a teaching assistant.
I met Jeff there, working as his teaching assistant, working with the bass studio. We had a great time meeting, and had a great time working together, and he encouraged me to come and be his teaching assistant at Eastman. That’s what led me to do my Master’s at Eastman.
Looking back on that, it was such a clear, amazing choice. At the time, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do it, but I thought that musicians shouldn’t go to school, they should start gigging right away, and I was thinking about going a cruise ship or something.
That’s a very Midwestern attitude.
Yeah, I felt I should be working! I remember my undergrad teacher said to me: “Man, you’re crazy, go to Eastman!” I went to Eastman for two years, and that was really life-changing and eye-opening, and opened my ears to all kinds of new stuff. I was coming from a different place, but when I got to Eastman, there was an interesting time when the faculty had just changed over from a very avant-garde faculty to a more traditional faculty, which is there now.
I was a coming from a traditional place, from St. Louis, and I felt really good there. It was weird; no one at Eastman at the time had heard much of that, there was me and Jared Schonig, and we were both really interested in swinging (among other things), that really heavy swing. Even at that young age, we had a big background in doing in, and had a really strong groove, especially together. At Eastman it hadn’t been going on for a while, and people hadn’t heard that. I remember a story with Harold Danko.
We were in an ensemble class, and we played a song that felt really good, and he said, “The quarter note has returned to Eastman!”
We loved doing that, but at the same time, there were so many interesting new kinds of musical projects that people were doing. Our friends were really into Balkan music, there were heavily into free improvised jazz music, and contemporary classical – which I really got into then too. There were a lot of really interesting things happening at that time.
How did The Wee Trio form after you and Jared started playing together?
It was a very logical extension; Jared and I had a really strong relationship at Eastman, and played together in almost every group, and I came to New York one year earlier, and kind of scouted it out. We got placed together in South Brooklyn, and we happened to live across the street from this vibraphone player (James Westfall), and some of our friends told us about him. We weren’t so sure he’d be good, because we hadn’t heard of him, but we agreed to do a session with him.
We had that feeling right away, when you can tell that you listen to all the same records, and you were coming from the place approaching music, and were able to stretch and do things without talking about it, and we could tell that we all had the same musical values. And the same time, we were all really aggressive about pushing the band, getting out there, promoting the group.
Actually, at first, we thought we needed a quartet; our vibes player really wanted a guitar. It’s interesting; a vibes trio really isn’t done. As far as we know, it hasn’t been done before. I mean, I’m sure there have been gigs with that lineup, but there hasn’t been a recorded history of it. I’m surprised, because for us anyway, it’s amazing.
Vibraphone players I think often come from a piano background, so they want to hear that fuller sound of having a piano or guitarist with them, but the trio is a great combination. The vibraphone, if they want to, can lay in a nice chord that sounds great, but they can also be just nimble as any two player playing with two mallets, and go back and forth.
I’ve played in a lot of saxophone trios, and a quartet at Eastman that I recorded two albums and did a lot of tours with, that had two saxophones, bass, and drums, so I was at home with that chord-less sound. For me to have a chord or two every now and then, was perfect. That’s as much as I needed.
The textural possibilities with a vibraphone are great. Plus, vibraphone, upright bass, and drums, are all percussion instruments in very different ways. We all approach it differently, and we all have subsidiary roles beyond percussion. We’re all coming from the same core priority, in a way that pianists are always are. That was a strong connection for us… It’s an ensemble that makes sense.
I’m curious about your 2012 David Bowie tribute record Ashes to Ashes, and your latest, Wee + 3.
For the Bowie retrospective, the original goal was to take on the work of a seminal modern composer. We wanted to find a modern composer whose work we could interpret. The idea being that a string quartet will always play Shostakovich or a work by Philip Glass, and they’ll use that artistry to highlight the artistry of another artist. That was the idea going into it; it was meant to feature us, and hopefully it did, but it was also meant to honor David Bowie, too. That was totally something different for us and totally fun.
For our most recent record, we wanted to expand the sound of the group, and we wanted to invite some other voices in. We always talked about doing this, almost since the beginning of the group, saying “If we were to add anyone into the group, what would it sound like?” We talked a lot about whom we wanted to bring in. We’re really lucky to get all the people we wanted in.
Nicolas Payton is playing trumpet: he’s the best, and he’s a real hero of ours too. That was really special. Then a guy we all knew from our earliest times in New York, he’s one of the first people I met, this guitarist Nir Felder, and he’s unbelievable on the record. The sonic openness of bringing a guitar brings the band to another emotional place. Then this young pianist and composer Fabian Almazan, who played with Terence Blanchard at one time and has done some incredible work with his own groups, he’s totally out of left field. He opened up a lot of adventurous sounds for the band. That was fun.
What are some of your thoughts and feeling coming back to Rochester and playing for the Jazz Fest?
We did it once before, and love, love, love coming back to Rochester. At least I do, and I know Jared does. It’s a real home artistically for me, and we’ve played a lot of festivals; the XRIJF is a remarkable festival. It’s just its scope, how long it goes, the amount of different artists there, and how much jazz is there. There are a lot of “jazz festivals” without that much jazz. It’s also a great festival to play, objectively speaking, the quality and ease of getting around.
It means a lot coming back to a place where I studied or where I really got something from a mentor, a formative place. To be able to come back and offer something that I’m proud of, it’s one of the most important things I do as a musician.
Jared Schonig (BA, 2005)
Can you tell us about your early life, and your early experiences in music?
I was born in Los Angeles, and both my parents are musicians. My dad’s a percussionist and drummer, a studio guy, and my mom is a classical pianist, so I grew up playing classical piano for about ten years, and switched over to drums in early high school. At which point my parents sort of tricked me to go to an arts magnet high school that was about an hour and a half away from my house, and at first I was very reluctant, but I was bit my jazz bug there pretty hardcore.
I just stared practicing and playing a lot of music, a lot of jazz, and I had a great pool of musicians at my high school who were very inspiring. One of whom is Kamasi Washington, whom I played a ton with in high school and college years when I was still going back to LA. He’s amazing, and rightfully getting his due.
I was really getting into big band music; I listened to a lot of Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and even more modern big bands, like Bob Mintzer’s big band. I also started to dive into some earlier jazz; Coltrane was some of the first stuff I heard: “My Favorite Things,” I think.
What led you to Eastman?
I think both my parents wanted to go to Eastman, but couldn’t, or didn’t, so I knew it was a really great school, and I’ll you three big reasons why I went there.
One is that I heard the big band play with the New York Voices when I was in high school, and I was blown away by that, especially being a big band lover. It’s funny, I’ve actually gone on to play with New York Voices for the past five/ six years… I saw them, I loved their big band, I love Fred Sturm’s writing…
Also, one of my dad’s friends is Clay Jenkins, and he was being supportive and wanting me to go, because he and my dad played together for many years in LA.
The third reason was that the whole audition felt very welcoming and was comfortable. It wasn’t a “come in for fifteen minutes and leave” kind of vibe, it was a two-day audition where you did a jazz audition, a group audition with a bunch of other auditioning players, and there was a classical audition. I didn’t know what teacher I would have. You know, some guys go to a school for the teacher, but I just loved the whole program.
What are some things that happened at Eastman that still stick with you today?
Well, man, the main thing that I think of is that you could be playing music for twelve to fifteen hours a day. Given your ensemble schedule, given your rehearsal schedule, given your outside-of-school rehearsals, and then playing a gig in the nighttime … Sometimes it would end up that Dan and I were the rhythm section for all those things, which was an amazing thing. We also were roommates, we were very close, and we listened to a lot of the same music.
Our “The Very Tall Band” combo, which won a Downbeat award, did a lot of music listening and practice together, and we would find different groups and try to sound like them. We had a lot of projects that we used to do that were fun, and you had the time to do them, and it was really great. That was partly in school and partly out of school. Those were some of my favorite formative things we did, my sophomore and junior year, when Dan came in.
He already knew some guys from Birch Creek. And the first year, he weren’t in a combo together, but we were in the New Jazz Ensemble, and it was a very good match. We heard music and thought of music very similarly, so were a good pair really quickly.
Yeah, bringing the quarter note back to Eastman?
(laughs) Very true!
So with the change in faculty, you guys did a lot of hard swing playing.
Yeah! My freshman year was the more avant-garde thing, but I always loved (traditional) stuff, and I didn’t come in as that kind of player; I came in as a straight-ahead guy, really loving big band, and while I was exposed to a lot of different jazz, I always knew what I loved. I saw the end of one era, and the beginning of another, and seeing Bill Dobbins come back to school – he’s obviously very swing-influenced and traditional-influenced – was great…
We were there at a good time for us. We moved back to the quarter note, which was nice.
What makes The Wee Trio special?
James was such a like-minded musician to both of us. James and I have a lot of – a freaky amount of – similarities in what we listen to and what we like. Dan and James played together first, and they had a good vibe, and then when the three of us played, it took us to another level. But I think it has less to do with the vibes as an instrument, and more about James as a person, and as a musician. He’s a singular musician in that he can use the vibes as a ‘comping instrument and as a melodic instrument. Even though we go back and forth between those roles in the trio, it’s a testament to James that he can do that, and make it a strong instrument in a trio.
Can I get your thoughts on the new record?
Yeah, I think compositionally for us, it was a great project and process, because we were able to expand the palate of colors and the palate of musicians, and to augment the group. It came to people. We didn’t necessarily want a trumpet, but we wanted Nicolas on the record, so we wrote music specifically for him. Each of us has a different connection to each one of these musicians.
Writing for these specific people was a great challenge, but man, one of the most fun things to do. We took a really good thing, and added another good thing to it, just for a taste of something else, like putting more frosting on a cake.
What are some of your thoughts and feeling coming back to Rochester and playing for the Jazz Fest?
I’ve probably played it nine or ten years, but there was a period where I didn’t play it for a couple years, and to come back and see all the changes, all the different venues … It was incredible.
The Festival always got better every year. It started off great, and now it’s huge and it’s insane. Rochester has a very special place in my heart. I love it, because it’s where I spent my formative years. To see the changes at Eastman is very cool, and the Festival has grown to this great and amazing thing. People from New York City love coming up.