Friday , April 12 2024
the westerlies

Concert Review (NYC): Brass Quartet The Westerlies Shipshape with Shape-Note Inspired Music

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.

Musical notation with shape-notes

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.

Visit their website for tour dates and recordings.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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