The first time I heard The Westerlies play "Saro," their arrangement of the English folksong "Pretty Saro," I was smitten. That sound! Warm and velvety and earthy and introspective. Not the bright clarion tones I expected from a brass ensemble. It was less cathedral and more backyard.
Which is not to say that the Westerlies are always meditative.
"Ruddy Ducker" is one of several pieces written by Westerlies trombonist Andy Clausen. All but two of the 17 tunes on this double album were written by members of the band. Their songwriting is an organic, collaborative process, Andy explains. "The way we write for each other," he says, "is to allow that room for interpretation by each player and to allow room for experimentation throughout the process and pieces change a lot the more we perform them and the longer we're playing them. They're kind of always alive and changing."
Trumpeter Riley Mulherkar adds, "The solution we found — and I think it was almost from the get go — was that we were writing for each other. So we weren't writing two trumpet parts and two trombone parts. If I sat down to write some music for us, I was writing a part for Zubin, for Wilhelm, and for Andy and myself. And we all have very different things that we can do and different things that we like to do."
Trombonist Willem de Koch says their philosophy is "Always try everything once. So whenever someone pitches an idea we're required to try it once and then decide whether or not we want to keep it. So I think we all put in a lot of input on each others' pieces and we all had a hand in arranging the pieces on the album."
One of those custom-designed tunes is "Lopez," written by Riley Mulherkar with fellow trumpeter Zubin Hensler in mind. Riley says, "The whole piece was around the idea of having Zubin play it and having him do all these weird things on the trumpet that I can't do and haven't heard other trumpet players being able to do. And it gives him this big space to explore those noises and sounds and emotions and expressions."
One of Zubin's compositions, "So So Shy," explores the relationship between an introvert musician and an extrovert instrument. "On some level it deals with being a relatively shy person who is a trumpet player and those being somewhat kind of a juxtaposition of sorts." He says. "But when I sat down to write it, I was thinking mostly about really exploring all the textural possibilities of this ensemble."
The Westerlies take the adage, "Write what you know" and tweak it slightly. They write whom they know. They know each other very well, and have been friends since their childhood days in Seattle.
Riley Mulherkar says, "I grew up five or six blocks away from Zubin [and] used to go over to his house and practice with him when I was young. Wilhem, Zubin and I all went to the same elementary school, middle school, high school. Andy was uptown at the rival middle school, high school. So we played in a lot of groups together, so these were jazz bands at the schools, orchestras, youth symphonies, just things going on in the city.'
With these decades of friendship between them, of course there are more than a few war stories and inside jokes that have become part of the group's collective narrative. Riley Mulherkar's lifelong fear of bees makes its way into "The Beekeeper," a frantic tune written by Willem de Koch.
Even their high school summer jobs were compositional fodder; Riley tells the story of Willem's piece, "The Shop":
"My job was working in a surfboard and stand-up paddleboard shop run by Willem's dad. So Willem's dad was my boss. Willem got a job painting a house and the house was my house, so his boss was my dad. I would come home from a day at the shop and Willem would still be there, painting the house with my dad, hearing all these stories about how he came to the States and met my mom and there were all these things I'd never heard before, but that's OK. It was a fun time in our life, and so Willem wrote this piece dedicated to that time and dedicated to the shop where I worked."
If you ask the Westerlies how they describe their band — are they a chamber ensemble? A jazz combo? A pop group? — you get some chuckles and a group shrug.
Andy Clausen says, "We try to let other people worry about that kind of stuff. We certainly draw influences from classical, from jazz, from folk music, from world music, from all these different places and then try take the music wherever we can in as honest a way as we can."