No one-trick pony, the Willie Wisely Trio leaps from era to era, delivering an ambitiously vivid aroma of days past. But wait, it's not retro. It's just easy to love.
Whether you're reminded of Mahalia Jackson “Moving On Up a Little Higher,” or Ray Charles proclaiming “I Believe To My Soul,” Rod Stewart coaxing a stadium to sing along to “Maggie May,” or Neil Young delivering an epic guitar solo, it's always more Willie than anything else. But that hasn't stopped comparisons. The group has been referred to as a “troupe of minstrels gallivanting,” “Sinatra on crack,” “Jazz-tinged bards” and “neo-burlesque.” One critic warned “David Lee Roth watch your back” while another imagined, “if Willie were to fart loudly you would no doubt feel inclined to utter an appreciative thank you.” The Willie Wisely Trio truly makes music in a different way.
If stripped naked the group would still be wearing Willie's songs. Loaded with content and blessed with form, Wisely composes like a theater director. Scene One: two lovers who don’t speak the same language. The curtain rises….. the song is half-rhymed in French, played to an oozy, 1960's TV commercial bossa nova funk. Scene Two: man comprehends the scope of his lustful desires and warns the lady to BEWARE. The curtain rises…. eight minutes of screaming guitar feedback sunk to the seething six-eight pulse of the most hideous of Hammond organ tones. Amazingly though, each song is just as effective if sung by Willie with an acoustic guitar. Indeed the Wisely's are a rare band, one that is compelled by their musical frontiers and not held captive by them.
In 1986, after leaving Beloit College and finding a job at the Wax Museum record store in Dinkytown, a university neighborhood in Minneapolis, Willie Wisely began a quest to understand and appreciate jazz. Previously, only the Beatles had really impressed him; and he was let down by most the music of the 1980’s. So without a muse Willie turned to history for inspiration.
In many ways bassist James Voss became this muse. He and Willie met in 1987 while attending what would become McNally Smith College of Music in Minneapolis. They’d signed on for the performance degree programs to explode their skills. Despite being a good songwriter, Willie kind of sucked on guitar and felt the need to improve. Unfortunately, studying scales and modes, and going to class with 50 shredding metal heads, all playing at the speed of light, made Wisely so self conscious that he unimproved his skills (temporarily). It didn’t really matter because he was a prodigious entertainer, a born ham–and he could really sing too.
The two students became quick friends and decided to form a band that could fuse the classic jazz and classic rock that they loved. James, a versatile musician, had played in scads of 'jobber' groups of varied styles. In this network he met Peter Anderson, an exciting drummer who was in love with an eclectic mix of bands from the frenetic Babes In Toyland, to the placid The Carpenters. He also loved Neil Young in equal parts to free-jazz virtuoso Albert Ayler.
The Trio was complete. James played a dilapidated upright bass, freshly nicked from a school band department. Peter, taking cues from John Bonham and Tony Williams, syncopated the music with non-convential ingenuity. And then there’s Willie, trying to become his heroes John Lennon and Mahalia Jackson, but never quite hitting the mark. But failure is breeding round of innovation and so it was that local critics dug their unique approach. By April 1990, the band would be featured in a cover story for The City Pages weekly––Minneapolis’ Village Voice at the time.
In November 1989 the Trio was playing at a smoky little bar in Minneapolis (yes, you could smoke indoors!). It was there that Greg Wold, co-owner of the bar and accomplished trombonist, first saw the group. He played in the legitimate Twin Cities jazz scene, but had a proclivity for inviting chaos onto stage. He could make the slide trombone blare and squeal like a weezing old steam engine. He