Locked Up in a Studio 

Local jazz hotshot Howard Wiley blows out Deep South prison spirituals into an opus called The Angola Project.

Young tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley starts recording his latest album, The Angola Project, at 10 a.m. on a December Friday and expects to finish the thing by 6 p.m. the same day; just in time to play a gig with Lavay Smith at Ashkenaz.

Making a whole album in one day seems natural for the Berkeley-born Hercules resident, who cut his teeth recording with rap outfit 2 Live Crew in high school and currently plays backup for Lauryn Hill. All the greats recorded in one day, he says: "It's called a jazz budget."

So Wiley packs his newest Angola Project ensemble — a trumpeter, opera soprano, scat singer, three violinists, two bassists, and a drummer, along with other Bay Area royalty including sax player Dave Murray, blues singer Faye Carol, and trombonist Danny Armstrong — into a tiny Mission District studio. What started with an aversion has grown into an obsession.

Wiley got the idea for The Angola Project after hearing Angola Prison Spirituals, the Arhoolie compilation of 1950s recordings. "My friend Daniel had been trying to get me to listen to them for damn near a year," Wiley explains. "I told him I didn't want to hear any prison songs."

The friend, Daniel Atkinson, is an ethnomusicology grad student at the University of Washington. In 2005 he spent six days at Angola State Prison in Louisiana, interviewing wardens, prison guards, cafeteria workers, welders, and more than seventy inmates — including gospel singers from the Pure Heart Messengers quartet. He wanted to get Wiley involved in the project, and made him listen to the compilation in the car on the way from the airport one day.

"You hear this group of men doing this chant," Wiley explains. "It's called 'Rise and Fly.' I was like, 'Dude, what is this?'" He was struck by the humanism and endurance in the prisoners' voices set against the drone of sewing machines, or hammers and pickaxes keeping time.

"The recording was all a cappella singing; some cats had guitars," he says. "They're not refined musicians. It's just about what you need to get by when you're incarcerated." Still, Wiley found an "intangible something" in the Angola recordings that reminded him of deacons at his church.

At that point, Atkinson says, Wiley just took the idea and ran with it. He formed the Angola Project ensemble in 2006 and received a commission from Intersection for the Arts, where he is its 2007 artist-in-residence.

By late afternoon in the Mission studio, the Angola Project has recorded three tracks of ten total. The floors are splattered with hummus and peanut M&Ms, and Wiley addresses the weary group: "All right, who's working tonight?" Trombonist Armstrong and bassist David Ewell say they are gigging tonight and hope to leave by seven. "Call them and tell them you're not coming," says trumpeter Geechi Taylor. Wiley hasn't eaten, but seems incapable of breaking concentration: "Let's do this, y'all."

Fortunately, Wiley has no qualms about repeating the same four bars over and over and over. Once the violins get their part down, he shifts to drummer Sly Randolph. "Stop, stop, stop, stop," he says. "You're coming in with the cymbal." Then he has to quarterback the violin section again. Then Wiley has to vocalize the drum part. "After Jeannine sings, it's pow, chop, papow, chop, boom, chop, paboom, chop, baboom two three, one two three, boom two three, one two three, baboom." After several false starts, the bandleader's face lights up. "This is a take," he says. "I can feel it!"

The mastered Angola Project opens with the call-and-response gospel tune "Twelve Gates to the City" and ends with an upbeat New Orleans funeral song called "Second Line" — usually played during the traditional brass band procession back from the graveyard. "Trouble of the World" and "Peace" — based on an Ornette Coleman composition — sound doleful and beautiful and clean. Other songs conjure spectral visions of prison life. "Rosie" uses the snare drum to replicate the sound of a hammer or pick, while the ensemble simulates a group of men chanting as they work.

Wiley says the title track "Angola" was the last song he composed for the album. "I had a conversation with Daniel about how he'd be going down Highway 61 and that anxiety would just hit him," he says. "That must have been a trip, just driving down there every day. That's when the theme to 'Angola' came to my head. That cadence that the violins play — just before the saxophone comes in — that's how it came to me. ... I picked up my horn and I just stayed up all night and wrote it, thanks to Rock Star Energy Drink. We rehearsed it that morning and played it at the Trinity Church that evening."

True to form, Wiley's group stays within its jazz budget and finishes the record by 10 p.m. the same evening. In July, Atkinson plans to revisit Angola State Prison. This time, Wiley will come with him. The light-hearted guy says he never really contemplated taking a vacation in prison. But there's a first time for everything.

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