12 Gates to the City
Howard Wiley is an extremely ambitious, thoughtful artist. I was introduced to the music of this 31-year-old composer/saxophonist in 2007 when he released The Angola Project, an extraordinary, challenging recording inspired by the field recordings of Alan and John Lomax in the 1930s at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. 12 Gates is a followup to that project. And it's a brilliant sequel. Wiley said the recording is a suite based on the traditional spiritual, with the 12 gates representing the many paths one can take toward finding redemption. Wiley finds a way to fuse old-time gospel with modern-day jazz, avant garde, spoken word, rap and serious saxophone chops. On "Come Forth (To The House Of The Lord)," Wiley blows a mean tenor solo over an in-the-tradition composition. That tune features what's great on a good portion of the record. Faye Carol, a gospel-infused jazz singer from Wiley's San Francisco, delivers earthy, wordless vocalizations as the band cooks and Wiley wails. But he's not satisfied to simply rework old jazz forms. "Endless Fields" is an avant ode to the idea that he saw endless fields of cotton when he visited Angola prison and realized someone had to pick it. That range-from old-time to avant garde to almost operatic-is what makes 12 Gates so appealing. Yes, Angola is still a working prison that houses mostly a black population. And Wiley obviously feels a breadth of emotions when he hears the field songs of long ago or during his modern-day research visits there. Both 12 Gates and it's precursor, Angola, span that joy and pain of the past and the present. Wiley is calling attention to the fact that African-American men make up six percent of our population in the U.S. but remain the majority in our prison population. Something's wrong here, and Wiley makes the point the only way he knows how: with musical notes and his saxophone. He's earned our attention. BY FRANK ALKYER - Down Beat magazine.