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Riley Mulherkar's "Ride or Die" marks a threshold and a testament

A still from the video for Riley Mulherkar's "Ride or Die."
Kevin W. Condon
A still from the video for trumpeter Riley Mulherkar's "Ride or Die," the first single from 'Riley,' his forthcoming solo debut.

What sort of musician is Riley Mulherkar? Watching him move around the New York scene over the last decade, you might have answered the question a few different ways.

A virtuoso trumpeter inspired by Louis Armstrong and deeply involved in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s education programs, Mulherkar persuasively cuts the figure of a traditionalist. As a founder of The Westerlies, the acclaimed new-music brass quartet, he identifies as a cutting-edge progressive. His collaborative history, meanwhile, has included everyone from Fleet Foxes to his fellow horn player Dave Douglas to the actor Alan Cumming.

With Riley — his debut solo album, due out Feb. 16 on Westerlies Records — Mulherkar won’t make himself any easier to categorize. “The overarching concept for me was to make a record that sounds like how jazz makes me feel, even if sometimes that strays a bit from the way we might expect a jazz record to sound,” he tells WRTI. “For ‘Ride or Die,’ that process meant taking what started as a jazz tune and constructing it like a pop song through years-worth of writing, revising, recording, and producing.”

“Ride or Die” is the first single from the album, and today WRTI is proud to premiere an accompanying music video. Photographed by Kevin W. Condon and edited by Mulherkar, it’s a spare yet rhythmically textured visual product — well suited to the hybrid sensibilities of the song, which places his trumpet in the mix with an acoustic rhythm section and an electronic production palette.

Here and throughout the album, Mulherkar worked with producers Rafiq Bhatia and Chris Pattishall, refining a process that took several years to manifest. In some ways it’s the continuation of a dialogue that all three artists brought to Zodiac, Pattishall’s 2021 intepretation of Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite. 

But, as Pattishall notes, “in many cases the production techniques on Riley’s album are more integral to the compositional process and register more explicitly in the listening experience. On ‘Ride Or Die’ acoustic quartet is interspersed with electronic drums and samples of Riley performing extended techniques. At a certain point in the production process I prepared and sent Riley these samples, he orchestrated them and sent them back — this is one of my favorite memories of making the album.”

Zenith Richards

Bhatia, an experimental jazz guitarist better known in some circles as a member of Son Lux, recalls first encountering Mulherkar on one of Pattishall’s gigs at Mezzrow, personalizing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” (That songbook standard reappears on Riley, in a similarly sparse pairing of trumpet and piano.)

“Though our contributions sometimes build an ecosystem around (and out of) Riley’s sound,” Bhatia notes, “some of my favorite moments are the ones where we employed the studio like a magnifying glass, heightening the intimacy and humanity of the performances and shining a light on the empty space around them. We used a litany of techniques to add color and shading to Riley’s sound and the ensemble arrangements, many of which I’ve discovered through electronic and experimental pop productions only to later uncover a forgotten precedent for within jazz history.”

Mulherkar composed this tune during a 2018 stint at SPACE on Ryder Farm, a nonprofit residency program and organic farm in New York’s Putnam County. He scribbled “Ryder Farm” on his sheet music, intending to come up with a title later. “While finding the spirit of the song and playing with those words a bit,” he recalls, “it soon turned into ‘Ride or Die’ — also a perfect encapsulation of my relationship with Rafiq and Chris.”

Riley will be released on Westerlies Records on Feb. 16; preorder here.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.