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The Westerlies: New Music For Brass In Hi Res

Mark Werlin By

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[There is] a whole generation of younger performing and creative talents for whom those old stylistic and conceptual boundaries have long since disappeared. —Gunther Schuller
The Westerlies, a self-titled album performed by an "accidental brass quartet" of two trumpet players and two trombonists, is a stunning accomplishment: a reference-quality recording of trans-genre new instrumental music that managed to beat the odds and reach a wide audience. The album's unexpected success points to the importance of curation in an overcrowded online music sphere.

One track from the album, an arrangement of the English folk ballad "Saro," was promoted by Tom Huizenga, a music producer and blogger for NPR Music, in his "Songs We Love" column. Not long afterwards, The Westerlies were granted a coveted spot on NPR's Tiny Desk concert series. The group was seen and heard in every market served by NPR radio stations, and streamed and podcast to thousands of online followers.

Music listening has become a solitary preoccupation, as a glance at any rush-hour train, café or busy gym would confirm. Millions of us move through the day encapsulated in our personal aural space, courtesy of iTunes, Spotify, Bose and Beats. NPR's Tiny Desk series, shot in HD video with good-quality audio recording, offers a virtual substitute to thousands of device users for the in-person concert-going experience. Artists who might otherwise not have access to a wide audience are recorded on a set that resembles a college radio station, bookshelves overflowing with CDs, LPs and craft-brew bottles. A well-produced 10-minute Tiny Desk segment is arguably more engaging to the listener than compressed MP3s over a streaming service or YouTube videos posted on Facebook that you never actually watch.

But even a well-timed feature on NPR couldn't guarantee the success of an album of new music that lacks vocals, bass, drums... or any electronically or digitally-generated sound. Social media may have fueled the buzz, but it's imaginative musical conception, clockwork-precise ensemble arrangements, virtuoso performances and exemplary sound engineering that makes The Westerlies such a rewarding experience.

BACKGROUND

The four group members, Riley Mulherkar and Zubin Hensler, trumpets; Andy Clausen and Willem De Koch, trombones, all from Seattle, Washington, were friends—and friendly musical competitors—during their high-school years. They haven't forgotten those earlier life lessons: the group's website prominently features musical education programs for young people that they champion and conduct. One of their programs, Breaking Barriers: Exploring the Intersection of Jazz & Classical Music, could be a shorthand description of the music on the present album. This is vital work. Students who participate in jazz classes, guest-artist workshops, summer boot camps and regional school competitions learn about their own individual capabilities, about group cohesion and ensemble interplay. Arts education funding has been severely curtailed in many American public school districts, especially in communities that lack a strong local economy. The commitment of The Westerlies, individually and as a group, to coach, educate and encourage young players is admirable, and should serve as a model to others in the performing arts.

THE MUSIC

The Westerlies' compositions overlap with some contemporary classical music genres, but they don't surf the same cultural wave. Each member of the group contributes original compositions that draw on a range of musical idioms, from hot and cool jazz, folk songs and hymns, to European art music and movie soundtracks. And while all of the player-composers have pursued their own individual artistic courses, the compositions they bring to the project share enough similarities in form and idiom to create a unified band sound. The pieces are through-composed mini-suites that do not follow traditional jazz or even post-bop form. There is a conscious exclusion of bebop vocabulary from the improvised passages, a declaration of distinction from jazz as it is generally recognized and taught.

The title of this column alludes to the 1956 Columbia jazz LP Music for Brass. That record documented a musical direction labeled Third Stream, a project which brought jazz composers such as Charles Mingus and J.J. Johnson into collaboration with classical orchestral musicians and conservatory-based composers. Johnson's and John Lewis' brass instrument pieces featuring Miles Davis are among the memorable accomplishments of this short-lived trend. Brass music had been a feature of American cultural life since the late 19th century, and Music for Brass brought attention to the high level of accomplishment of jazz brass musicians at a time when brass ensembles were relegated to marching bands or culturally isolated, as in the New Orleans second-line brass bands. In the liner notes to Columbia/Legacy's 1996 reissue of Music for Brass (The Birth of the Third Stream CK 64929), composer Gunther Schuller, a prime participant and conductor of the original recording sessions, writes:

The world of music in the 1950s was still divided among sharply defined lines of musicians. Today, those erstwhile separate worlds have come together, have cross-fertilized, and [there is] a whole generation of younger performing and creative talents for whom those old stylistic and conceptual boundaries have long since disappeared.

Schuller's observations couldn't be more pertinent in describing the cultural developments in the music world evidenced on The Westerlies. It is intentionally not jazz, while displaying the genius of brass ensemble performance developed by jazz players. All of the group members have led, or collaborated and performed in jazz ensembles, and undoubtedly could incorporate more conventional jazz vocabulary in their solos if they aimed to do so. There is a kind of boastfulness in their stance that, in lesser hands, could be heard as arrogance. But because they are such accomplished players and composers, the music never sounds pretentious, and since most of the 17 tunes run 3 to 6 minutes, the album is both artistically advanced and streaming-friendly—a guiding principle and a skillful means of breaking through to a larger audience.

Trumpetist Riley Mulherkar's "Lopez," the tune that closes the first CD, is one of the highlights of the album. In a bravura display of horn technique and harmonic inventiveness, Mulherkar improvises variations on the opening theme that gradually digress from the subject material and mutate into breathy, almost gasping, atonal phrases.

The longest piece on the album, Andy Clausen's "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself" (which perhaps alludes to the maxim that musicians who initially resemble their influences will, with persistence, eventually sound like themselves), is an unabashedly brassy tone poem with alternating rhythms and strong forward momentum. The comical "Rue des Rosiers" paraphrases film composer Nino Rota as it stumbles back and forth from a ¾ meter drunken dance into a bluesy trumpet solo over slow trombone arpeggios, and finally lurches back into a circus music coda. The group's bravura tone production gleams in this vibrant performance.

Zubin Hensler's compositions reveal an autumnal, melancholy character that can often be heard in contemporary film music, so it is not surprising to learn that he has scored shorts and documentaries, and that he collaborates with choreographers. In "So So Shy" Hensler's classical training is evident; the piece opens with a terse trumpet statement over staccato 4/4 bursts by the trombones, and goes on through an evolving set of musical idioms—20th century modernism to free improv atonality—of ever-increasing complexity before settling into a contemplative conclusion. "The Beach," an introspective piece with echoes of Aaron Copland and Gil Evans, connects The Westerlies to fellow Songlines Recordings artist Wayne Horvitz and his Americana/jazz hybrid style. The Westerlies' first album for Songlines was the 2014 collaboration Wish the Children Would Come On Home: The Music of Wayne Horvitz.

Trombonist Willem de Koch contributes "The Beekeeper" and "The Shop," postmodernist tunes that playfully toss their influences (Copland, George Gershwin, 20th-century choral writing) into a blender and turn the knob up to high speed. The mini-suite segments of "The Shop" suggest a modern dance performance—it's not difficult to imagine choreography, costumes and staging as the piece proceeds from a quiet introduction of sustained chords into a boisterous 1920's dancehall episode and finally returns to the introspective mood of the opening.

THE SOUND

Jesse Lewis, a Grammy-award winning engineer formerly of Boston's Sound Mirror team, was the perfect choice to produce and record The Westerlies. In his teens, Lewis was a student trumpet prodigy who studied at the same school later attended by members of the group. He won critical praise for engineering classical SACDs including Music for a Time of War on Pentatone, and Wind Serenades on Summit. For The Westerlies, recorded at Lewis' own studio, the horn players are positioned in a front-line array that recreates their live performance configuration and permits the smallest nuances of sound to emerge with startling accuracy.

The 192/24 download of The Westerlies is a vivid, realistically detailed recording, and easily one of the best hi-res new-music releases of the year.
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