The Westerlies: The Westerlies

The Westerlies' 2014 debut album, Wish the Children Would Come On Home, showed the New York brass quartet, formed three years earlier by four childhood friends from Seattle who reconnected in New York while studying at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, could perform the music of another composer, in that case Wayne Horvitz, with aplomb; its self-titled follow-up now shows the group to be as capable as composers as players. It's an ambitious, double-CD affair that proves Riley Mulherkar, Zubin Hensler (trumpets), Andy Clausen, and Willem de Koch (trombones) require no instruments beyond their own to maintain listening engagement, especially when the writing is so strong. Not everything on the collection is credited to them—appearing among its seventeen tracks are pieces by Ellington (“Where's The Music?”), Ives (“Songs My Mother Taught Me”), and a Sam Amidon/Nico Muhly arrangement of the English folk ballad “Saro”—but for the most part, the release is as pure a group creation as could be imagined.

Four intense weeks of rehearsal time preceded the recording sessions (at The Farm Studio in West Chester, PA), the group wanting to be so comfortable with the material that the studio experience would be spent producing the most expressive performances rather than dwelling on technical execution. If there's an explanation for the group's distinctive blend of folk, jazz, and chamber musics, it probably has to do with the different interests and influences each member brings to the shared endeavour—one was a classical trombone major in college, another delved deeply into Third Stream compositions, and so on.

This is a virtuosic outfit capable of playing with immense grace and poise in one setting (Mulherkar's scene-setter “A Nearer Sun” a representative example), its members clearly attuned to one another and demonstrating great sensitivity to dynamics and texture, and then performing the boisterous next with declamatory abandon. The four turn on a dime from the blustery “New Berlin, New York” to the wistful “Saro” with seeming effortlessness. The nine-minute “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” is as explorative and wide-ranging as the five-day road trip David Lipsky undertook with David Foster Wallace and wrote about in the same-titled book published in 2010. Elsewhere, the quartet's bluesier side convincingly asserts itself in the brassy Ellington cover, “Lopez” sees them weaving separate muted expressions into a restful evocation, and the rousing, Rota-esque “Rue des Rosiers” will likely bring to mind images from Fellini's Amarcord for many a listener. Heartfelt ballads, playful fanfares, elegant chorales, chamber works, hymnal meditations, luminous unison playing, robust soloing—all and more are accounted for on the seventy-five-minute collection.

As mentioned, Mulherkar, Hensler, Clausen, and de Koch grew up as childhood friends, but they were also sometime musical rivals who competed against each other in regional competitions. Six years on from The Westerlies' formation, its members have found a way to channel their individual energies into a unified persona different from any other quartet ensemble. Jesse Lewis, the album's producer, describes it as “unlike any brass record you've ever heard,” and the claim turns out not to be as hyperbolic as it might appear. Nowhere do I see the release pitched as a manifesto, but the set certainly serves as a powerful statement of intent on the group's behalf.

October 2016