Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Jazz Composer Howard Wiley’s Latest Album Looks Deeply Inside the Prison System

Howard Wiley’s 2006 album The Angola Project took its impetus from the saxophonist/composer’s experience with prisoners in the music program – such that there is one – at notorious Angola Prison in Louisiana. Five years later, he’s released a sequel, 12 Gates to the City, somewhat less grim but still unflinchingly aware of the harsh day-to-day conditions behind bars on the site of a former slave plantation – and something of a celebration of the efforts of the inmates there to maintain their sanity. Blending original jazz with rustic, bucolic gospel themes similar to the field recordings of convicts made by Allen Lomax and John Oster, this makes a good companion piece to Marcus Shelby’s Soul of the Movement album (just reviewed here). It’ll resonate with fans of both classic gospel music and retro Americana interpreters like Lavay Smith and Daria Grace. Shelby plays bass here, alongside Wiley on alto and soprano saxophones, Geechi Taylor on trumpet,Yeruda Caesar-Kaptoech and Dina Maccabee on violins, drummer Sly Randolph, trombonist Danny Armstrong and singer Faye Carol.

There’s a lot of vocalese on these songs without words: in a way, Carol is the bad cop, the powerful low end, alongside an uncredited voice whose scatting has a distinctly Asian flavor. There’s considerable irony that an album that more than alludes to a kind of de facto slavery that’s still practiced in this country would evoke China, much of whose export economy is based on it. There are also echoes of the baroque on many of the tracks here which have strings, notably the warily hypnotic Come Forth (To the House of the Lord). The album builds with the rippling gospel boogie Old Highway 66 – which wouldn’t be out of place in Rev. Vince Anderson’s catalog – to the longing and stateliness of Captain Donna DeMoss, a tribute to the prison guard who impressed Wiley with her humanity during his time with the inmates.

Endless Fields, which depicts a cotton plantation ready for picking, adds jazz embellishments to a vintage 20s swing-pop tune. John Taylor, dedicated to a strong-voiced inmate who by all accounts was prohibited by the warden from participating in music, brutally evokes a master-slave relationship, with uneasy scurrying rhythms paired off against suspiciously blase piano. The rest of the album balances a handful of warmly swinging, wordless gospel numbers with a searing big band gospel jam, a gritty hip-hop number about life on the inside, and a diptych of tone poems that serve as the background for a thoughtful spoken-word interlude by former inmate Robert King, who aptly connects the dots between the American prison system and the practice of slavery.

As is commonly known, major multinational corporations rely on prison labor for everything from piecework to customer service. If you manage to get through to a call center at a major telecommunications company, you may well be talking to a prisoner. In one notorious case, California state prison laborers were forced to remove “made in China” tags and replace them with “made in USA” stickers. Such practices are typically justified by corporate executives as a way to maintain “competitiveness.” Interestingly, in economic terms, competitiveness equals hours worked divided by wages: slavery, theoretically if not realistically speaking, is infinitively competitive. One can only imagine the howls of indignation from the corporate elite should there be a public outcry against this shameful system. While there’s no harm in giving inmates a productive way to pass the time, like stamping out license plates or highway signs, displacing workers in the outside world is another matter. Meanwhile, entire rural areas have come to depend on the prison system as a sole source of income. To slow the steady flow of predominantly black and latino convicts from mainly urban areas would severely impact certain segments of the countryside: divide and conquer taken to its logical, ugly extreme.

February 1, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marcus Shelby’s Soul of the Movement: Best Album of the Year So Far?

Majestic, hard-hitting and intense, bassist/composer Marcus Shelby’s new civil rights-era themed big band album Soul of the Movement charges to the front of this year’s crop: it’s neck and neck for top billing with the Roulette Sisters’ new one right now. Shelby calls this a “meditation” on Martin Luther King, which makes sense in that the composer has obviously reflected deeply on King’s impact on his era, and vice versa. Shelby has strongly incorporated a Mingus influence, but also has an individual voice, vividly evoking struggle but also triumphant joy. The orchestra comprises Jeff Marrs on drums; Gabe Eaton and Marcus Stephens on alto sax; Sheldon Brown and Evan Francis on tenor; Fil Lorenz on baritone; Joel Behrman, Rob Ewing and Mike Rinta on trombones; Louis Fasman, Scott Englebright, Mike Olmos, Darren Johnston and Mark Wright on trumpets; Adam Shulman and Sista Kee on piano; Matt Clark on B3 organ and Shelby himself conducting from the bass. Contralto Faye Carol and Kenny Washington deliver passionate gospel vocals on a handful of songs as well.

They turn the gospel standard There Is a Balm in Gilead into a brief, balmy overture with vocalese and then launch into another gospel standard, Amen, ablaze with brass and call-and-response vocals. The first of Shelby’s compositions, Emmett Till, offers unexpected sweltery summer ambience in place of the expected dirge. It’s a feast of strong motifs, a tribute to the man rather than an attempt to evoke his martyrdom, imaginatively propelled and embellished by Marrs’ drums. Black Cab, a boisterous swing blues number sung by Carol, pays tribute to the car pools who drove Montgomery residents around during the 1956-57 Montgomery bus boycott, lit up by a tremendously affecting alto solo from Eaton. A cover of the Mingus classic Fables of Faubus is every bit as defiantly exhilarating as it could be, the band absolutely nailing that dark latin groove that emerges toward the end. Trouble on the Bus continues in a gorgeously brooding vein, building uneasily from Shelby’s ominous series of bass chords and taking flight on the wings of the alto sax.

The epic Birmingham (Project C) potently evokes the 1963 Birmingham marches and clashes with the police: it’s the strongest and most cinematic track here among many strong ones. Shifting from pulse-quickening suspense to frenetic chase scenes, it evokes the same kind of horror that Shostakovich portrayed in his numerous requiems for the victims of Stalin’s terror. The two-part Memphis (I Am a Man) illustrates King’s final act before his murder, in support of striking Memphis sanitation workers. Noirish atmosphere rising over a tense latin beat, Howard Wiley’s soprano sax struggles against its constrictions throughout a long, white-knuckle-intense solo; the second part bustles with ominous Mingus echoes and ends unresolved. The rest of the album includes the rousing organ riffage of the gospel funk song We’re a Winner, an inspired swing jazz version of Go Tell It on the Mountain and a tersely torchy, stripped-down version of Precious Lord, Take My Hand to close on an aptly contemplative note. For maximum impact, you may want to separate out the upbeat gospel-flavored tracks from the stormy big band stuff when uploading to your ipod. It’s out now on Porto Franco Records.

January 27, 2011 Posted by | gospel music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment