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Meet A Young New York-Based Brass Ensemble With Some Serious Seattle Roots

Andrew Swanson
The Westerlies recorded their debut album in a family friend's house on Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands.

The Westerlies are a new young brass ensemble based out of New York City. They’re an all-over-the-musical-map group whose first album is already garnering critical praise.

And this first bit of success could have something to do with their Seattle roots. All four musicians, all in their 20s, grew up in Seattle where they absorbed much of the local music scene. They’re the product of two of the best high school jazz programs in the country: Garfield and Roosevelt high schools. And their debut album, recorded in a family friend’s cabin on Lopez Island, is a reinterpretation of an eclectic mix of compositions by Seattlelite Wayne Horvitz.

“We recognized we shared the same musical sensibilities and tastes, from jazz to classical to chamber music, improvised music. A sort of Seattle sensibility,” said Riley Mulherkar.

And what is that Seattle sensibility?

Said Mulherkar: “It’s sort of this inclusiveness and…”

“Open-mindedness,” said Willem De Koch, another Westerlie, finishing the thought.

“Yeah, very open-minded music,” Mulherkar said.

The group is made up of two trumpet players, Mulherkar and Zubin Hensler, and two trombonists, De Koch and Andy Clausen. Everyone has known each other for at least five years, running in the same school band circles, living in the same neighborhood, then winding up in music college in New York City.

But Mulherkar and De Koch go back the longest, to the time when they were both at Washington Middle School.

Back then, Mulherkar was a chubby kid who sported a mini-Afro and pink braces, and carried all over the place his trumpet “with a mini-plunger. Literally, a toilet plunger,” he said. “You use it as a mute to make all sorts of jazz effects.”

Credit Florangela Davila
Riley Mulherkar, left, and Willem De Koch have known each other since middle school.

De Koch looked up to Mulherkar, who was a year ahead of him in school.

“He was in the top jazz band and playing the big solos,” De Koch said.

They ended up being roommates on all the school jazz trips and that’s when their friendship took root.

“We were really gaining an interest in music, becoming really dedicated. We had the bug," De Koch said.

The musical bug meant sleepovers at Mulherkar’s house where they swapped music. They’d spend Saturday mornings playing with the Seattle Youth Symphony. When they got older, they went to Seattle Symphony concerts and afterwards, they’d take their horns and join in jam sessions at the old Faire Gallery on Capitol Hill.

“All these amazing musicians grooving out, way late at night. That’s what was so crazy about coming up in that environment. It’s total immersion,” Mulherkar said.

By then they were both playing with the Garfield High School Jazz Band, under the tutelage of Clarence Acox. There were more out-of-town jazz festivals, including the Essentially Ellington Jazz Festival, the Super Bowl of high school jazz competitions.

And it was in this high school jazz scene where they got to know Andy Clausen, who later became the third Westerlie. Clausen was their cross-town rival, playing in Roosevelt High School’s jazz band. And he was the one who also helped shake their musical aesthetic.

“We were listening to a lot of straight ahead jazz and more swing-based jazz,” De Koch said. “Andy and a lot of the Roosevelt guys were more into what Riley and I would consider weird music. Like free improvisation.”

“They used to just turn off the lights and improvise free,” Mulherkar said. “And I thought that was like the craziest, freakiest thing in the world.”

It was Clausen who invited them to participate in improv sessions known as the Racer Sessions, which are held on Sundays at Café Racer in Seattle’s U-District. Fast forward a few years and then the three of them are living in New York City and going to college.

Hensler, who is a few years older and is also a Garfield grad, was already living there. Hensler started throwing house parties and the four Seattle transplants started to play.

“If we had happened to play bass, drums, piano and trumpet, we’d be a band and everyone would think we were much more conventional,” Mulherkar said. “But we were two trumpets and two trombones.”

The Westerlies’ debut album is “Wish The Children Would Come On Home: The Music of Wayne Horvitz.”Horvitz, who taught several of the band members when they were kids, has been a fan of the group and gave the musicians free reign to reinterpret music from his wide-ranging canon: jazz, classical, film scores, acoustic pieces and “pieces I made with electronics or drum machine.”

The music and how it’s been interpreted by The Westerlies makes the quartet difficult to categorize.

“You wouldn’t be wrong to call them a jazz band, but you wouldn’t be right, either,” Horvitz said.

Horvitz is hosting The Westerlies for their official album release party on Aug. 8 at his Royal Room club. The group will then go on a West Coast tour before returning to play at Seattle’s Chapel Performance Space on Aug. 25.

Florangela Davila is KNKX’s news director. A journalist in Seattle since 1992, she’s earned numerous individual and team honors in print, online and broadcast, most recently three regional Murrows for KNKX.