Brooklyn-based brass quartet The Westerlies took inspiration from the American shape-note singing tradition for their stirring first concert program since the COVID-19 pandemic shut live music down. The two-trumpet, two-trombone ensemble’s soulful, polished skill shone throughout, with original pieces by the members serving as burnished centers of gravity.
From an Early-Morning Train to an Evening Trumpet with The Westerlies
Each member contributed a shape-note-inspired composition, and the mission launched with an additional original by Andy Clausen. The trombonist’s playfully avant-garde “Robert Henry” had what felt like the heart of an old soul number lurking amid crackling polyrhythms and fluttering improvisations. Everything that’s great about The Westerlies played out in this one piece – the playfulness, the precision, the synchrony and the mastery of styles from many places and eras.
In his other contribution, “The 5:10 to Ronkonkoma,” Clausen adopted and adapted the shape-note tradition’s “walking tempo.” Harmonic inventiveness wound around a simple theme which devolved for a time into a muffled shutdown punctuated by erupting fanfares.
Trumpeter Riley Mulherkar based his equally impressive “The Evening Trumpet” on a reversal of the melody of “The Morning Trumpet” from The Sacred Harp, a well-known songbook from the Southern shape-note tradition. Mulherkar’s piece begins and ends with a childlike whine that frames contemplative reflections with a devotional flavor.
New Shapes from Old
Trombonist Willem de Koch’s “Overpass” unfolded a unison melody into a rich chorale, and trumpeter Chloe Rowands’ ‘Kerhonkson” centered on a jaunty tune with a celebratory air. All the originals bore their composers’ individual stamps while sharing the ensemble’s dynamic, exploratory sensibility.
In their Westerlies arrangements the actual shape-note songs fit right in: Clausen’s brisk, dance-like take on “Louisiana”; a bluesy, smoky, occasionally atonal “Parting Friends”; and the English folk song “Weeping Mary,” hymn-like with a humming, throbbing energy.
The concert concluded with a look forward to the group’s next recording. Leaving shape-note singing behind, they muscled into their arrangement of Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw’s single-movement but multi-dimensional string quartet “Entr’acte.” The Westerlies incorporated a variety of techniques to translate the effects the score asks of the strings. The Westerlies’ performance brought out the humor, both dry and silly, that can be found in the piece, lacing with both rigor and fun all its dimensions – rhythm, harmony, timbre. Here, as in “Robert Henry,” was encapsulated all that is The Westerlies. Long may they blow.