“Don’t switch the groove up at the beginning of the solo,” says Oakland saxophonist Howard Wiley across the studio to his drummer, Sly Randolph, then counts out a cue for the rest of the ensemble of singers and instrumentalists.
The drums roll mordantly like a New Orleans funeral march, two basses (Devon Hoff and David Ewell) strike up, two violins (Yedua Caesar and Vivian McBride) sound mournfully, and soprano Janine Anderson comes in singing high, melismatic notes as Wiley intones on tenor below her—and the recording of “Trouble of the World” for the CD of Howard Wiley and the Angola Project gets back on track on the Friday before New Year’s at Coast Recorders, Mission Street, San Francisco.
The CD of Howard Wiley and the Angola Project—inspired by field shouts and spirituals from Angola State Penitentiary, Louisiana—will be released Feb. 1 on Wiley’s own label, High Cotton Productions.
“We’re looking for promotion and distribution,” said Rob Woodworth of the Jazz House, formerly on Adeline Street in Berkeley, where he met Howard Wiley a few years ago.
“Howard would come in very late, after his gigs, to the Tuesday night jam sessions and blow the doors off,” Woodworth said. “I had to find out who this guy was, what he was all about.”
Woodworth now works with Wiley, helping with business and promotion for the Angola Project, and Howard continues to play for jazz house events, recently improvising with a dancer for a Free Jazz Friday in Woodworth’s series near West Oakland BART (www.thejazzhouse.org).
Wiley’s Angola Project began two years ago, when his old friend Daniel Atkinson, who had been looking into the music from Angola Penitentiary, “cornered me,” as Howard puts it, and made him listen to the field recordings.
“I didn’t want to listen,” he said, “Who would want to listen to prison music, I mean the subjects that come to mind. But Daniel played ‘Rise and Fly,’ and it was music from the soul, the kind of songs I’d only read about, from slavery, sharecropping, chain-gangs, but kept alive, and has the same thing that attracted me to Coltrane playing ‘A Love Supreme.’ It’s out of Blues and church music, but so different. I compare it to food, what my mother puts in her pies: is it the cinnamon, what is it? But it’s got it.”
Now the group’s starting up again after a glitch. Howard clowns around bawdily for a minute, getting the players and singers giggling—an onstage habit, too—then sketches in a little more of what he wants. Gradually, over a few takes, the number fills out, more body’s added by those taking part. Danny Armstrong joins in, making a muted trombone talk eloquently as Janine’s voice spirals up to the ceiling.
“Danny just retired from the Postal Service,” says scat singer Lauren Benedict, in the booth between numbers. He also plays with singer LaVay Smith and other popular Bay Area groups. “He’s up on a level with any trombonist in the country,” Howard will say later.
Armstrong isn’t the only local luminary in the session. Vocalist Faye Carol is back in the corner, scatting to “Trouble of the World,” singing, “Soon will be done/Trouble of the world/Trouble of the world/Coming home to see my God.”
And as the group was setting up for the number, a man in a hat briskly exited down the corridor, carrying a saxophone case—David Murray, long a national figure in jazz, who Howard met when the World Saxophone Quartet played a tribute to the Grateful Dead at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.
“He did a talk later, when the East Side Arts Alliance in Oakland opened their new space, then played afterwards, and I played with him,” Wiley said. “A fellow Bay Area saxophonist. I knew he’d gone to school with my uncle and my father, and when I mentioned it, he said, ‘I know your people!’ He laid down some extremely powerful and passionate tracks. David Murray and Faye Carol listen to them from the ’70s or last week at the studio—timeless.”
The Angola Project debuted live some months back at the Mission District’s Intersection for the Arts, with a cellist instead of violins. The next live appearance will be at Jazz At Pearl’s in North Beach, Feb. 23 and 24. This summer, Howard and Daniel will be taking a trip south, back to Angola.
“The Project is ever-evolving,” says Howard, “Always expanding more and more ...”
Daniel’s in the booth, talking about the harsh conditions at Angola, “a model prison farm!”—and about Howard, up and running all day, usually on “a couple little instant pancakes ... but I don’t think he’s eaten at all today.” The videographer documenting the whole process scurries up and down a ladder, adjusting lights. Howard looks askance at Anderson and nods, and she starts up “Trouble of the World” again, really warbling it out, as the basses pick up, and the violins play pizzacato under a low, sassing trombone solo. Howard purses his lips, arching his eyebrows, listening, then he and his superb trumpeter, Geechi Taylor, join in as the old spiritual (”I heard it first by Mahalia Jackson”) really takes off.
For more information on Howard Wiley and the Angola Project, see www.howardwiley.com