“All American music originates straight from here,” says 27-year-old tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley. He's discussing the music behind his Angola Project, a large, unusual ensemble he formed two years ago to perform his reinterpretations of vocal music from the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. It's a bold statement, to be sure, but the project is nothing if not bold. It reimagines songs that have been handed down through generations of inmates since the days of slavery. “We think we've come so far in America, or that plantations are a thing of the past, but it's not true,” Wiley says. “It's there at Angola; it's a prison plantation.”
The sprawling prison complex in rural Louisiana where inmates work some 18,000 acres of fields is one of a handful of modern-day prison plantations. Its inmates have passed down a style of group singing that is a shining treasure of almost-vanished American musical history. Renowned musicologists Harry Oster and Alan Lomax recorded Angola inmates for the Library of Congress in the 1950s; those recordings inspired Wiley's remarkable Angola Project CD, released last year. Introducing his self-styled “soul chamber” ensemble — three singers, two bassists, and two violinists, plus a drummer, saxophonist, and trumpeter — the CD used the spirituals and field hollers sung by the inmates as springboards for startlingly original music. The sound is deeply rooted in gospel and blues, yet modernistic and free enough to border on the avant-garde. Live, the group is even better. At a recent show at the de Young Museum, the band delivered a captivating set, with the vastly different styles of jazz vocalist Faye Carol, opera singer Jeannine Anderson, and the inimitable scat singing of Lori Benedict blending with the far-reaching ensemble.
Listening to Wiley talk is a little like hearing him play sax. A mainstay of the local jazz scene for years now, he's insistent and immediately distinct. Whether it's his straight-from-Pluto soloing on standards at a late-night jam session or his insistence that his latest project heaves the whole of American music into the future, the effect is the same: He's anything but shy. Wiley says his inspiration for the Angola Project was “finding a strain of American folk music that nobody talked about and that nobody explored,” noting that “the irony that this music is being preserved in a prison is inescapable.” Introduced to the Library of Congress recordings by his musicologist friend Daniel Atkinson (who had also made more recent recordings at Angola), Wiley immediately set about forming a group. Then last year Atkinson and Wiley journeyed to Angola, where they listened to the incantatory style of call-and-response singing firsthand. “I met these cats, and they were like the most beautiful cats ever, the best male singers I've ever heard in my life,” Wiley says, “and they were so welcoming and so giving in explaining it.” The experience inspired a new long-form suite, Twelve Gates to the City, that the group will debut at Intersection for the Arts on February 5.
While it might seem that creating new arrangements of centuries-old spirituals and work songs is a limited project, Wiley doesn't see it that way. The new suite, he says, is just part of a continuing exploration of what he has heard at Angola. “The purpose that music serves, especially when you're in such a desolate situation, is it makes it art for art's sake,” he says. “It takes it to a whole different level.”