ALBUMS: The Westerlies Offer a Real Change of Tune

The acclaimed New York brass quartet continues to blur the lines between classic folk and modern jazz on third LP

The Westerlies 2020. (Art: Ron Hart)

Artist: The Westerlies

Album: Wherein Lies The Good

Label: Westerlies Records

★★★★ (4/5 stars)


Instrumental albums often provide a particular challenge to some music fans.

Without a vocal or lyrical narrative to guide the proceedings, a less sophisticated listener sometimes gets lost in the subterfuge and unable to navigate the melody, finding themselves a victim of ambiguity due to a less formatted regimen.

That may be one reason why jazz often finds a narrow, niche audience, especially when it’s governed by abstract ambiguity. For many folks, an inability to hum along leaves them feeling left out and in the ether.

It’s a shame really, because as any aficionado of jazz, classical music, world rhythms or any style in-between can tell you, instrumental music — no matter what the variety — leaves plenty of room for interpretation and stimulation of the imagination. Sometimes it takes it takes the listener to other realms, whether its memory, emotion, inspiration, stimulation, or all those elements combined. 

The Westerlies Wherein Lies The Good, Westerlies Records 2020

The Westerlies have a handle that might suggest they’re a cool cowboy combo, or at very least, an Americana outfit with roots entrenched in the wild west. And yet, while the instrumental pastiche occasionally suggests the soundtrack to an epic western — especially on an extended suite like that which encompasses the title track — Wherein Lies The Good is mainly a reflection of a terrific chamber quartet at work, one consisting of two trumpets and pair of trombones. To some, that may seem like limited confines, but in fact, it’s a credit to their credence that they can take the music in such a myriad of directions. “Do Unto Others” recalls the sound of ragtime, “Born Ten Thousand Years Ago,” traditional jazz.

The slow, mournful progression of “The Kiss” and the subdued sound of “In The Mornin” are decidedly elegiac, while “Robert Henry” evokes the feel of sprightly celebration, its muffled instrumentation barely suppressing the full flourish that arrives at regular intervals. Indeed, the shift in tone and tempo is remarkably fluid and filled with finesse, providing the music with far more verve and vitality than the group’s limited musical arsenal might initially suggest. 

In many ways then, Wherein Lies The Good provides an inspiring series of soundscapes, the element of experimentation never far from either innovation or intent. It’s music that often defies definition, although inspiration is clearly rampant. The sources are varied, from a pair of works by Charles Ives (“In the Mornin’, “Memories”) to contemporary interpretations of works by the late Judee Sill (“The Kiss”) and friend and mentor Robin Holcomb (the title track). Occasionally the music is abstract and  seemingly disjointed — the closing “Entropy” suite being but one example — but notably, those elements only add to the intrigue.

Ultimately Wherein Lies The Good is flush with fascination, a daring and distinctive work of profound proficiency. Every album should be this intriguing.

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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