As the year 2020 unfolds, we are blessed with a new offering from The Westerlies, a welcome musical respite from the challenges of these times.
For those unfamiliar with this ensemble, The Westerlies are a relatively new chamber ensemble as of this past decade—a Brass Quartet—with a parallel orchestration to a string quartet: the obvious replacement of the violins by two trumpets, followed with the viola and cello giving way to a tenor and bass trombone respectively. The lineup, starting from the lower registers: Willem de Koch and Andy Clausen (trombones), Riley Mulherkar and Chloe Rowlands (trumpets).
While there is ample existing literature available for a variety brass configurations, the inner muses of The Westerlies bring forth a great deal original music, the creativity of the members of the ensemble. In ways a cutting age ensemble, although not exactly avant-garde, as their music touches many genres — listening to their albums, you will hear different Americana voices (deep blues to swinging jazz, traditional spirituals, folk songs, even Charles Ives); you will also hear their more personal works, such as a beautiful tone poem and musical story of the Puget Sound, or reflections—somewhat whimsical—of a wander through a street in Paris, to cite but two compositions of many.
Their new album, Wherein Lies the Good, follows their first two releases — their initial exploration of the music of Wayne Horvitz (Wish the Children Would Come On Home, 2014) and their self-titled album (double CD, aka The Red Barn, 2016) — with an impressive collection of some 18 compositions.
While it is true that some of these pieces are comparatively short, the defining composition of the album “Wherein Lies the Good” luxuriously fills over minutes. Interestingly, this piece was actually written for solo piano by their associate Robin Holcomb, with whom The Westerlies have collaborated and performed
As I took my own listen to Holcomb performing “Wherein…” on the piano, along with the version by The Westerlies, it was clear the appeal of the music had, calling to be realized in a brass setting. The opening has a declarative presence, which is readily adapted as an introductory fanfare. What I found satisfying was how the more pianistic idioms in the following movements carried smoothly over to brass. Some of the movements in the suite indulge in spacious open harmonies, with light melodic activity, others bounce along as engaging dances, still others carry a feel of broad lyrical songs, of Appalachian folk melodies, of hymns — finally to conclude with a plagal cadence, which she lets sit in the air, unresolved.
In ways, this keystone piece also defines the shape of the rest of the album in microcosm — a collage on its own of different genre and styles, reflecting different musical traditions, musical periods. The Westerlies present adaptations of several pieces by the gospel vocal group of the 1930s, the Golden Gate Quartet. The interested listener is encouraged to listen to any of the original works from the Golden Gate Quartet for comparison — “Traveling Shoes”, “Gospel Train” and others. These pieces are rendered so naturally as a brass quartet — even down to the idiomatic train sounds — that not knowing otherwise it would be tempting to think that brass was the original instrumentation.
Judee Sill’s love ballad, “The Kiss”, is honored in a rich setting by The Westerlies, as they too honor Sills, herself a blessedly rich talent, of all too short a life.
While this is an instrumental chamber ensemble, referring to a composition as a song seems a bit mis-place, but no other word aptly captures “Laurie”, trumpeter Chloe Rowlands’s sweeping composition, a lovingly presented tribute to her teacher Laurie Fink. A broad range compositions by The Westerlies shine here — there is a highly entertaining musical sketch of two 21st century sprites, cousins of Till Eulenspiegel (“Chickendog and Woodblocks”); there are a couple of adaptations of Charles Ives’ works (“In the Mornin”’ and “Memories”); and two bookend piece, which in ways span the broadest arcs of being alive, from youthful explorations (“Robert Henry”) to the struggle for life itself (“Entropy”), the latter from the ensemble’s co-founder, trumpeter Zubin Hensler.
Many other pieces grace this album, each with a voice, a character of its own, and each so inviting. There are ample solo opportunities, showcasing the virtuosic talents of the musicians, their sensibilities, performed as part of the overall musical landscape, without dominating it.
While the many and varied pieces on the album illustrate the deft compositional and arranging skills of The Westerlies, on the listening you are struck by these four top-flight musicians not only as individuals, but also as a cohesive top-flight ensemble — four instruments, one voice.
The Westerlies bring us that voice as the music of today.
Looking over the sweep of the past decades, The Westerlies are part of the next generation of ensembles, recasting how we look at music. The traditional models were shaken up by the advent the genre defying Kronos Quartet, who recast the role of the string quartet as not being musical museum curators, but rather a vital and alive instrument calling for exploration, improvisation, for a creative new look at contemporary compositions, of music called then—and now—as “classical”.
Since that time, there has been another wave of ensembles who have taken that vision and broadened it, continuing to solicit new works, finding composers responding enthusiastically to that call. Then a third wave, then a fourth — a sort of great Musical Migration, leaving the constraints of the old, in search of the new. Now we have The Westerlies — yes, classically trained, jazz trained, with avant-garde explorations, yet with music that is neither classical nor jazz, not cross-over or rock or fusion, but simply the music of today, lovingly embraced and shared with us. May their musical wave continue to wash upon our shores, may it continue to shape and define the musical landscape for years to come.
For More Information, Visit The Westerlies Website: