When I saw that The Wee Trio's latest release Ashes to Ashes was a set of David Bowie reinterpretations, I just shrugged my shoulders and said, "Okay, let's go!" It's not just that TWT made its bones on helping to redefine that most venerable of jazz traditions, the "standard"; it's that once you peel away the makeup and the rhetoric, Bowie's best music (at its base) was hard-core, stripped-out rock & roll -- and you can't get much more bare-bones than The Wee Trio's drums-bass-vibes format. Put simply, this band and this music just makes sense together.
The thundering pre-melody trade-offs on the opener "Battle for Britain" makes it seem like drummer Jared Schonig and mallet man James Westfall are less concerned with re-creating the original 1997 recording than they are with re-staging the air battle fought over the English Channel in 1940. Schonig's proven many times over that he can fight the Luftwaffe single-handed, but his roaring fills and "Hulk Smash" muscle is matched volt for volt by Westfall, who infuses the lyric with beauty and nuance when he's not making your ears ring like you've been standing next to an air raid siren. Bassist Dan Loomis is pretty much left with nothing to do but chord from some distant bomb shelter, but he gets seriously busy later in the disc.
The schizophrenic treatment of Bowie's "Queen Bitch" eloquently transmits the protagonist's volatile nature, initially stating that "My heart's in the basement/My weekend's at an all-time low," but then the arrangement floods with rage when the protagonist's rival shows up "in her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat." TWT commutes easily between speedball anger and plodding depression on "Bitch," with Loomis' edgy mid-section solo confirming that he's still one of the best interpreters in the game. It's Westfall staying out of the way as Loomis and Schonig renew their killing partnership, but Westfall comes back to blues it up in the song's second half.
"The Man Who Sold the World" seems pretty faithful to the original, but their hushed flamenco treatment (complete with stellar hand drumming by Schonig) actually finds romance in the dystopian lyric that should be Mitt Romney's theme song. The band's take on "Ashes to Ashes" pulls the song's weary beauty out of the original's overproduced arrangement while giving the trio a place to really play catch, while "1984" still retains most of its pleading urgency, even if this is the only TWT take that loses out (barely) to the original recording: Four decades later, Bowie's blaxploitation-film-soundtrack approach from Diamond Dogs still can't be beat.
The elegant keyboard accents Westfall weaved through TWT's second disc Capitol Diner Vol. 2: Animal Style are nowhere to be found on Ashes, but they're neither missed nor needed here. What is missed is more Bowie tunes: We only get six here, with the swirling "Sunday" wrapping things up. I would have really loved to hear TWT's take on early Bowie B-sides like Ziggy Stardust's strutting "Moonage Daydream" or Aladdin Sane's dramatic closer "Lady Grinning Soul." That said, Ashes to Ashes is the best kind of tribute disc: Rooted in respect, fueled by inspiration, and allowing the tribute-makers to put their own indelible mark on the music.