The Westerlies Blow West

Photo by Sasha Arutyunova

For most people, the term “brass band” brings to mind very specific sounds: the strict precision of a military band, the free-spirited improvisation of New Orleans brass music—or maybe the polyester uniforms of a high school marching band.

The Westerlies don’t quite fit into any of those categories. The Seattle-bred, New York-based brass quartet draws from a variety of musical sources: the spontaneity of jazz, the compositional rigor of the classical tradition, the warmth and immediacy of folk. Comprised of Riley Mulherkar and Zubin Hensler on trumpet with Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombone, the band is known on both coasts not only for their impressive technical chops, but also for their charismatic performances and remarkable versatility.

“We can go from playing Coachella to a small chamber music festival in the San Juans to a jazz club in New York City—it’s so unpredictable,” Mulherkar says. “One of the benefits of what we do is that we get to go to so many different places, not only geographically, but also different scenes, different audiences, different listeners and appreciators.”

On May 23, the Westerlies return to Seattle for a homecoming concert at the Royal Room, the same venue where they had their very first performance in 2011. The space holds particular significance for them As teenagers, they each studied under the mentorship of composer and pianist Wayne Horvitz, the Royal Room’s co-founder and music programmer. The concert is made even more special by the fact that it will be Hensler’s last performance with the Westerlies, as he’s leaving the group to focus on music composition, production and his solo project twig twig. His replacement has not been announced.

The Westerlies grew up as friends in Seattle playing in high school jazz bands at Garfield and Roosevelt, two of the best programs in the country. They formed an “accidental brass quartet” only after they all relocated to New York City for college, taking their name from the westerly trade winds that blow from West to East.

“What sets us apart from other brass music is that the instrumentation of the ensemble was just a byproduct of our personal friendships,” de Koch says. “Had we played bass, drums, guitar and keys, maybe we’d be a rock band.”

Their unusual instrumentation means the Westerlies have to compose or arrange almost all of the music that they perform, since so little repertoire exists for an ensemble of two trumpets and two trombones. Over the course of the past seven years they’ve cultivated an expansive repertoire of original compositions as well as arrangements of composers from Charles Ives to Duke Ellington.

For this Wednesday’s concert, the Westerlies will perform a program titled Songs We Sang, which looks at American vocal music of the 20th century through their arrangements of traditional songs by Ives, gospel music of the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet and singer-songwriter tunes from the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s a program that showcases not only their incredible range as performers, but also the unexpected range of a brass quartet.

“Brass music can be so grand and loud and regal and declarative—and it can also be so lyrical and smooth and silky,” Mulherkar says. “One of the sides of brass that we really try to mine is how soft and warm and whisper-like it can be. It can get really close to the feeling of a human voice.”

The Westerlies explore brass music not only through performance but also through community outreach. As of 2016, the band is also a nonprofit organization, and this September presents the first annual Westerlies Fest, a four-day music festival featuring evening performances by the Westerlies and a cast of guest artists and collaborators, as well as daytime concerts in area schools and a weekend-long music workshop for students of all levels.

The Westerlies will also perform at Bumbershoot this summer with the indie-folk band Fleet Foxes, another group of Seattle natives with whom they toured this past year.

“We find different places we go, people have different perceptions of what a brass band is,” Mulherkar says. “We just think of ourselves like a regular band, four guys who grew up together and write their own music and play songs that they like. We just happen to play brass.”

The Westerlies play the Royal Room Wednesday, May 23. Get tickets here.