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12 Gates to the City by Howard Wiley

In Wiley's world, hymns, post-Ornette freebop, and hip-hip poetry rub shoulders with ragtime, field hollers, and the blues. "12 Gates to The City" is also a musical travelogue of sorts, detailing Wiley's experiences during three visits to the notorious Louisiana State Prison, in Angola, LA. Initially inspired by Alan Lomax's historical field recordings of the prisoners' music, Wiley dug deeper – first by covering the tunes from the Lomax recordings, then by visiting Angola and speaking directly to the Angola prisoners and corrections officers themselves, whose words, songs, and life stories inspired Wiley to create some of the most amazing music I've heard in quite some time. Without going into the history of Angola, or pondering its historical significance, suffice it to say that the music inspired by Wiley's experiences there is some of the most powerful and gut-wrenchingly poignant stuff I've ever heard. Ever. This is a 'must-hear' recording, no doubt about it. Comparisons of Wiley's work to that of other jazz artists wouldn't make much sense because Wiley chooses to operate outside of the normal jazz genres such as hard bop, free jazz, traditional jazz, or what-have-you, though there are elements of each in this sprawling poly-stylistic song cycle. Sound-wise, the closest parallels to "12 Gates..." that I could come up with would be some of Henry Threadgill's work with his Sextett during the late 1980s, or several of Duke Ellington's more ambitious opuses that involved strings and vocals, or perhaps some of Doug Hammond's work with Regina Carter and Steve Coleman from the early 1980s. Like Wiley, each of these artists is primarily interested in direct artistic expression unfettered by genre labels. 


Wiley's composing, arranging, and playing are world-class, as are the baker's dozen or so Bay Area musicians and poets that comprise his band, 'The Angola Project.' On tenor, Wiley has a big tone, a gruff, angular delivery, and solos with a fire-hose like flow of great ideas that would impress me even if his composing wasn't so strong. Fans of Archie Shepp, David Murray, George Adams, Booker Ervin, Clifford Jordan, and Billy Harper will absolutely love Wiley's tenor playing. His soprano – featured most prominently on 'Captain Donna DeMoss' and 'Rise' - is full-bodied, highly mobile, and pitch-perfect in the Coltrane lineage. Wiley's juxtaposition of several vocal styles throughout the CD is a stroke of genius. Among the personnel are an operatic vocal soloist (Jeannine Anderson), a scat vocalist (Lorin Benedict), a conventional jazz-blues vocalist (Faye Carol), and an MC (Bicasso), and - despite their different approaches - Wiley mixes and matches them in the same piece. For example, 'Song For a Hot Summer Night' features an utterly haunting exchange between Anderson's soaring operatic voice and Benedict's jazz scat. Wiley makes extensive use of call-and-response throughout "12 Gates..." and one gets the feeling that these exchanges are taking place across the ages, and across otherwise insurmountable socioeconomic barriers. Wiley also understands the significance of hip-hop in the continuous flow of Black creativity across the ages. Bicasso's rapping is a fundamental part of the ensemble's sound – pieces such as 'Rise' and 'Old Highway 66'

Another unique aspect of Wiley's music is his use of strings. Though each get a brief solo feature, the band's two violinists typically play classical-sounding written lines (e.g., 'Captain Donna DeMoss,' 'Song for a Hot Summer Night,' the 1st movement of 'Three Days,' the opening section of 'Old Highway 66') or melodies that act as a foil for for the rough-and-tumble jazz horns. Doing so, they add an unusual sort of tension to the music, while adding layers of interest to Wiley's call-and-response passages. The remainder of the band (two bassists, drums, trumpet, trombone, and piano) is also quite distinctive though they take a bit of a back seat to Wiley, the singers, and the spoken word pieces (including one given by Robert King, one of the Angola Three whose plight was documented in the film 'In The Land of the Free').


"12 Gates to the City" is a highly original, wrenchingly emotional, multi-dimensional musical portrait of a singular place with an absolutely horrific history. The CD starts out innocently enough, with a snippet of found sound that segues into the anthemic 'After Prayer.' Here, Wiley gives us a taste of truly spiritual jazz which sets the stage for the rest of the CD. The Church is all over "12 Gates to the City," as much of this music is inspired by spirituals and hymns, and by Wiley's encounters with individuals from the deeply religious prison population. 'Three Days' introduces some of Wiley's modern jazz and avant garde ideas as a framework for some truly incredible improvisational moments – the exchange between scat vocalist Benedict and Wiley is simply one of the most phenomenal musical moments of 2010. 'Come Forth' returns us to the world of gospel-tinged blues and soul, with room for great solos by trombonist Danny Armstrong (who also gets a fine solo across on 'John Taylor'), pianist Sista Kee (uncredited on my copy of the CD), vocalist Faye Carol, and Wiley. Named for the single road leading into Angola, 'Old Highway 66' shifts the mood rather drastically to one of utter desolation – with the violinists, operatic vocals, and Wiley (on soprano sax) out front. Here, Bicasso and the vocalists provide a chilling counterpoint with stark spoken word drama, screams and moans. 'Captain Donna DeMoss' is similar in tone to 'Three Days,' with Wiley's soprano and Marcus Shelby (on arco bass) riding over the strings and Sly Randolph's propulsive drums. 'Endless Fields,' inspired by the vast cotton fields that surround the prison is another chilling, evocative piece notable for its sparse instrumentation: just Wiley and vocalists Benedict and Anderson. 'The Walk,' by contrast, is a high energy freebop piece with extended solos by Wiley and Kee. I especially enjoyed 'Threnody's' heraldic theme. Though this is ostensibly Wiley's musical tribute to both call-and-response chanting and the role of swing in jazz, you almost get a sense of relief from this piece – as if he wrote this thinking about how glad he was to see Angola in his rear-view mirror.

"12 Gates To The City" is a musical masterpiece that shifts back and forth between the religious and the secular, the joyous and the desolate, and the past and the present in an unusually incisive and emotionally potent way. Wiley's amazing playing, keen ear for distinctive thematic material, and adventurous use of unusual combinations of instruments and vocals put him right at the top of the jazz heap. The overall emotional impact of this CD cannot be overstated – I get chills every time I listen to "12 Gates To The City." Wiley takes you on a real adventure here, one that has inspired some truly great music, one that will make you think and feel something, one that will make you ponder man's inhumanity to his fellow man – and one that will stay with you long after the CD itself is done spinning around in your player.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Howard Wiley and The Angola Project featuring Faye Carol
  • CD Title: 12 Gates To The City
  • Genre: Various Jazz Styles
  • Year Released: 2010
  • Record Label: H. N. I. C. Music
  • Tracks: After Prayer, Three Days (Movements 1, 2, and 3), Come Forth (to the House of the Lord), Old Highway, Captain Donna DeMoss, Endless Fields, The Walk (The March of the Field), John Taylor, Song for a Hot Summer's Night, Rise, In His Name, Threnody, My God (New Angola)
  • Musicians: Howard Wiley (tenor and soprano saxophones), Faye Carol, Jeannine Anderson, Lorin Benedict (vocals), Bicasso (rap, spoken word), Robert King (spoken word), Marcus Shelby, Geoff Brennan, David Ewell (bass), Yeruda Caesar-Kaptoech, Dina Maccabee (violins), Danny Armstrong (trombone), Geechi Taylor (trumpet), Sly Randolph (drums), Sista Kee (piano)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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