The Westerlies

Wherein Lies the Good
Westerlies Records WST 001

Joe Fiedler’s Big Sackbut

Live in Graz

Multiphonics Music MM005

Established from the symmetry that exists among members of the same instrumental family, brass ensembles have a long history in many cultures, especially as military or marching bands. Yet the idea of transforming a brass quartet into an unaccompanied conveyance for notated or improvised interpretations is something that has only flourished during the past few decades. The Westerlies and Joe Fiedler’s Big Sackbut – both New York-based – represent contradictory adaptations of the form and not because one is a mix of trumpets and trombones and the other of trombones and a tuba.

Now consisting of trumpeters Riley Mulherkar and Chloe Rowlands plus trombonists Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch, the Westerlies have been associated with stylists as different as Wayne Horvitz and Vieux Farka Touré. Although the 18 selections on Wherein Lies the Good encompasses tunes from gospel, shape note singing, folk and Jazz-like sources, the conservatory commitment to proper intonation still informs their performances. Leaders in their own rights and working in groups like Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Satoko Fujii’s orchestra, Dave Douglas, David Bowie and Bebo Valdez are trombonists Fiedler, Luis Bonilla and Ryan Keberle plus tuba player Jon Sass, a Vienna-based American fill-in for the tour that culminated in Live in Graz. More experienced and freer in their interpretations than the other quartet, the Big Sackbut members bring more amusement, dynamics and fluidity to the CD’s nine selections.

With the Graz CD dedicated to Roswell Rudd (1935-2017), whose freewheeling multiform approach playing was an inspiration to all, the quartet performs three of the late trombonist’s tunes and “Tonal Proportions”, Fiedler’s supple, sliding but gritty memorial to Rudd. The trombonists get to demonstrate solo and trading off in duos how they work with the Rudd tunes while Sass supplies the burbling bass bottom. After a bluesy intro Keberle stretches the theme of “Bethesda Fountain” with jerky smears without breaking it and leads to a mellow ending. It’s the same with “Yankee No-How”, as he expands its Rudd-identifiable melody with flutter-tonguing as it’s decorated by variations from the other bone-players, reaching a crescendo of blended triple tones, then effortlessly slides back to recap its pumping intro. Swaying and testifying “Su Blah Blah Buh Sibi” is a foot-tapping-tailgate romp that suggested a relaxed Second Line parade with the call-and-response resolution expressed both in a capillary fashion and vocalized.

The other, mostly Fiedler-composed tracks range through a compendium of brassy timbres with the four creating their own adaptations of Latin-Jazz, Bebop and gutbucket notions. Still the defining moments come with a reinterpretation of Charles Mingus’ “Devil Woman”. Before the melody is picked up by Keberle and bounced into hard swing with whinnying asides, Fiedler vocalize the theme with half-valve effects and inner horn vibrations that pay homage to Jimmy Knepper yet expand that style to the 21st Century.

In their genre mixing, the members of The Westerlies are certainly 21st Century musicians, but could use a little grit and looseness in their interpretations. Take for example the formalism with which they treat most of the remaining material with the supple way they handle five tunes associated with the Golden Gate Quartet, a jubilee gospel group popular in the 1930s and 1940s. Putting aside their conservatory mannerisms, the four add bent notes, plunger tones, capillary squeaks and a foot-stomping rhythm to the performances. By the second, “Travelin' Shoes”, the worldly arrangement allows for staccato slides, and primordial swing, adding deeper bass-trombone-like rolling harmonies. Finally the flutter-tonguing and splattering smears turns “Do unto Others” into the sort of joyous jubilee a sanctified brass band would regularly perform.

On the other hand tunes like “Weeping Mary”, which come out of the sacred harp singing tradition, are so harmonized and hymn-like that they almost replicate standard church music. The three-part “Entropy”, the other extended suite, is confusing, since the beautifully harmonized inflections appear to take from both pop and correctly notated music. The trumpets are bright and the trombones earthy enough to produce a rhythmic thrust. But the resolution is too pat with the narrative seemingly backing away at a funeral pace. “Eli”, whose buzzing brassiness bleeds across the exposition and “Laurie”, a lovely threnody for a departed trumpet teacher featuring a sweet trumpet lead are brief standouts as well. But by its timing, which is double the length of any other composition, the band obviously wants the title track to serve as its chef d’oeuvre. Multi-sectional, the piece composed for solo piano by Robin Holcomb and arranged by the quartet moves through heraldic fanfares to down-home-like simple harmonies and into swaying and sweeping Charles Ives-like brass band-like intimations. At points it appears overtly pastoral, other times it picks up a cadence midway between barn dance and Balkan, as a trumpet part arches over unison horns and quiets into a lullaby-like meander. It’s both contemplative and comprehensive, but you wish at least one note was out of place.

Overall The Westerlies have produced a notable CD that will be appreciated by those who prefer brass band music that’s a little out of the ordinary. However it’s Joe Fiedler’s Big Sackbut inimitable swinging improvisations which provide a fuller listening experience.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Live: 1. Peekskill 2. Devil Woman 3. I'm In 4. Bethesda Fountain 5. Ways 6. Yankee No-How 7. Chicken 8. Su Blah Blah Buh Sibi 9. Tonal Proportions

Personnel: Live: Joe Fiedler, Luis Bonilla, Ryan Keberle (trombone) and Jon Sass (tuba)

Track Listing: Wherein: 1. Robert Henry 2. In the Mornin’ 3. Weeping Mary 4. Wherein Lies the Good 5. Golden Gate Gospel Train 6. Travelin' Shoes 7. Remember Me 8. Born Ten Thousand Years Ago 9. Do Unto Others 10. The Kiss 11. From the Very First Time 12. Laurie 13. Eli 14. Chickendog and Woodylocks 15. Memories 16. Entropy, Pt. 17. Entropy, Pt. 2 18. Entropy, Pt. 3

Personnel: Wherein: Riley Mulherkar and Chloe Rowlands (trumpet) and Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch (trombone)