“I get goosebumps listening to that music,” Howard Wiley said. “Anything you do that gives you goosebumps—that experience is good.”
Saxophonist Wiley was talking about the spirituals and field shouts of prisoners in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison—and the musical sounds from his own background—that brought him to create his “Angola State Project,” commissioned works that set these songs for an unusual sextet plus two vocalists that he will lead at the premiere this Tuesday at Intersection For The Arts, 446 Valencia St., near 16th Street, in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Wiley, a Berkeley native and Berkeley High alumnus who has been attracting national attention as a player, credited his writer friend, John Atkinson (who wrote the notes for Wiley’s CD) with getting him to hear the Angola inmates’ music.
“He hounded me to listen to it, so I came home one day from the airport, picked up an album at Down Home Music in El Cerrito, and listened to ‘Rise And Fly.’” Wiley said. “It was something I’d never heard before. It had that intangible something I got in listening to Coltrane or Mahalia Jackson, but not nearly so refined. You could call it transcedant spirituality.”
Wiley explained how the Project unfolded.
“My friend made a trip down there and came back with a recording, emailing me two tracks,” he said. “That solidified it for me. I made him mail me all the pictures and documentation of the trip. I wanted to present it in some way, do this music justice—take it to the next level.”
Angola State Prison is a self-sufficient, enclosed, working prison plantation, part of a three-prison farm system that includes the more notorious Parchman Farm. Pioneer music ethnographer Alan Lomax made field recordings there in the middle of last century. The tradition endures—and captivated Wiley.
“When somebody entraps you like what these guys did ... I’d be listening to The Pure Hard Messengers, a quartet doing ‘The Keys To The City,’ and I’d think, ‘Man! Prisoners? In jail, struggling to find the key?’” Wiley said. “I was listening more and more, breaking down and analysing what these untrained musicians, these singers could do—so many inflections, so much personality ... It’s so powerful, moving; weird seven bar, two and three bar phrases in odd meters—it’s like the intro to ‘A Love Supreme.’”
The Intersection commission—Wiley’s first commission—came through Kevin Chan.
“He deals with pre-jazz, with the development of American music, and is familiar with Angola,” Wiley said. “The commission made it possible for me to compose two pieces.”
Rob Woodworth of The Jazz House, where Wiley played and jammed when it was on Adeline Street, and since, is co-producing the project.
Wiley’s band will feature his saxophone playing (tenor and soprano), trumpet, two acoustic basses, a cello, drums and two singers. ”One opera, one scat,” Wiley explained. “It’s very odd instrumentation with a very unique sound, reflecting the influences we’ll bring to it, to add our experience and interpretation. Those harmonies strike a chord, undeniable when it hits that chord, like when Coltrane did.”
Wiley said he first heard that “intangible something” in the music at the churches his grandmother and mother took him to, Star of Bethel and Triumph Church of God and Christ, both in Oakland.
“Every Sunday for 16 years,” he said, “I had a choice—and I decided to bypass the belt and go. It was the source of my inspiration. I played, learned in A flat—not the new jazz keys. There was one sister there, I loved to go and hear her sing; she sounded just like Mahalia. then I caught that thing again in Bird, in Coltrane playing ‘Blues Attributed To Sidney Bechet’ and in late Billie Holiday ... and Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman,’ where I couldn’t hear the form and didn’t know what’s going on ...
“Now I’ve picked those who embody that something, to add some vibe and flavor to the Project. We can’t just sit and play patterns ... where’s the inspiration? That’s what music is.”
Howard Wiley and The Angola Project performs April 4, 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., at the Intersection For The Arts, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco. $12-20. For more information, see www.theintersection.org.