Howard Wiley and The Angola Project – 12 Gates To The City (2010)

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by S. Victor Aaron

Howard Wiley’s The Angola Project (2007) created a lot of buzz and put his name firmly on the jazz map. It wasn’t so much for the tenor saxophonist’s playing or inventing a whole new style of jazz. Rather, the acclaim came from the attention he brought to the spirituals of Louisiana’s state prison at Angola, and their harsh lives there. More than just being a relayer, Wiley interpreted these songs in a way that amplified the emotions of the prisoners; through his music, he went beyond being an Alan Lomax-type field reporter and told a compelling story. However, Wiley is not done telling the story, and that’s why On October 19, The Angola Project is followed up with 12 Gates To The City.

12 Gates To The City takes its title from the first track from The Angola Project, a traditional spiritual that Wiley transformed into a life-affirming stomper. The first moments of the new record even replays an excerpt from this track. A moving three day visit to the Angola State Prison while that first Angola record was being readied for release inspired more material from him. In his own words, Wiley states in the liner notes, “I want to musically convey the experience of the journey to the depths of sorrow in trying to adjust to life in prison, realizing the dark history at a plantation prison, and the resultant search to find oneself through song. It is ultimately about redemption of the spirit and the process of rehumanizing oneself.”

Wiley has fully absorbed not only spirituals but those experiences that gave rise to them, and created something the sounds black-and-white old. Yet, the broad swaths of styles of African-American music have been distilled together in a way that hasn’t been done before he did. If T. Bone Burnett were to produce a jazz record, it would most likely sound a lot like this one. Violins and wordless female vocals coalesce with Leadbelly melodies and Louis Jordan shuffles. Old-timey gospel (“After Prayer”) line up alongside Coltranian jazz (“The Walk”) and even rap (“In His Name”). The bonus final track is a speech by Robert King, a former Angola inmate, over two pieces of music composed by Wiley, with the same speech played over each piece. King’s speech equating the prison system to slavery in a democracy riveted Wiley, enough to compel him to include it on his album. It leaves listeners something to chew on long after the last note of the CD is played.

Like the first Angola Project, 12 Gates To The City is not an easy listen, because Wiley won’t allow you to separate the music from the plight of the Angola prisoners. Though very similar records on purpose, my nod is in the direction of The Angola Project for bookending the record with some dance happy, upbeat tunes like “Twelve Gate To The City” and “Second Line.” But chances are pretty good that if you like one, you’ll like the other.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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