05/16/14 By Nate Chinen
The Gig: Meet the Westerlies
An exceptional debut devoted to the music of Wayne Horvitz
One of the more remarkable albums to cross my path this spring is Wish the Children Would Come on Home (Songlines), a supremely assured debut by the Westerlies, whom you should really get to know. A repertory album devoted to the music of Wayne Horvitz—the astute pianist and composer who helped define New York’s downtown scene of the 1980s before he decamped to Seattle—it grabs the ear with a warm yet austere arrangement of timbres. The Westerlies, it so happens, is a brass quartet: Riley Mulherkar and Zubin Hensler on trumpets, and Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombones. They grew up in Seattle, counting Horvitz among their mentors, and headed to New York for further training, at either the Manhattan School of Music or Juilliard. Two have since completed their studies; the other two are set to graduate next year.
My experience with these musicians falls slightly outside the usual critical purview, in that I first encountered them as seniors in high school. Four years ago, gathering intel for a story about the booming jazz ecosystem in Seattle, I paid visits to a pair of public schools there that tend to dominate Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition. I also stopped by Café Racer, a boho coffeehouse in the city’s University District, where I heard a disarmingly smart 10-piece band featuring students from both schools. This was the Split Stream Big Band, led by Andy Clausen, with Mulherkar and de Koch in the ranks. I was impressed enough—by the quality of Clausen’s writing, the vibrant clarity of the execution, and the initiative of all parties involved—to use that moment as a curtain-raiser for my piece, which ran in the New York Times. Of course it didn’t hurt that Mulherkar and Clausen each won awards of distinction at that year’s Essentially Ellington competition, or that Garfield High, the alma mater of every Westerly but Clausen, took first prize.
I made a mental note to keep my eye out for these musicians, knowing that it was just a matter of time before they entered active circulation. Clausen kept me looped in with the occasional e-mail, alerting me to the 2012 release of The Wishbone Suite (Table & Chairs), which featured his music for a clutch of hometown peers; its sprightly chamber-jazz aesthetic, with a palette including accordion and clarinet, revealed his admiration for the likes of John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet. Aglow with youthful enthusiasm but also extremely savvy, that album squared with my initial impressions of Clausen.
Last spring, he sent out a press release announcing the Westerlies’ part in a Horvitz residency at the Stone. Had I been able to make one of those gigs, I might have had a better sense of what to expect from Wish the Children Would Come on Home. Consisting of roughly a dozen deftly reframed Horvitz compositions, sequenced as if to suggest a flowing continuity from track to track, it’s an impressive feat from almost any angle. The members of the group made their own repertory choices, drawing from across an intrepid body of original American music. Among the highlights are several tunes from Horvitz’s Otis Spann suite, previously recorded by the Seattle Chamber Players. “The Band With Muddy” becomes a tour de force of dynamics and breath control, with Mulherkar nailing a perilous series of pirouettes originally scored for flute or violins. A song from later in the timeline, “Waltz From Woman of Tokyo,” finds the trombones creating a hypnotic phase effect, in an echo of post-minimalist pianism.
When I checked in with Horvitz, he told me that two of the album’s shorter pieces, “Home” and “Triads,” had actually been adapted from études in his piano method book for children. The effect of the translation to brass, in each instance, is striking; “Home,” which rides something like a Gypsy oompah cadence, also features one of the album’s rare improvised solos. “I was there for the recording,” Horvitz said, alluding to a session last summer in Washington’s San Juan Islands, “and I remember saying, ‘Wow, this is almost weird. Each of you takes one solo on the whole record.’” Horvitz, who began teaching some of these players when they were in junior high, uses the word “egoless” to describe the ensemble’s interplay, and hearing the evidence, it’s hard not to agree.
Clausen, slightly more matter-of-fact, hit on the same idea. “Regardless of what instruments they played, we would still be making music together,” he said of his bandmates. “We all come from similar backgrounds and have similar musical agendas, and that’s what brings us together.” And what, I prodded, was at the heart of those agendas? “The music comes before any single person’s ego or ability,” he said. “There’s definitely a strong folk element,” he added, “and an interest in simplicity, which is a reaction to a lot of the other music happening in our generation, particularly in the conservatory.”
Given that the Westerlies formed as a showcase for the members’ original compositions, the new album could be said to suggest a departure as well as a declaration of arrival. Whatever the case, I’d urge you to do what I did four years ago in Seattle: Take note of these players. You’ll be hearing more from them soon.
Originally published in May 2014