(Howard Wiley, tenor sax; David Murray, tenor sax; Geechi Taylor, trumpet; Danny Armstrong, trombone & vocals, David Ewell, bass; Sly Randolph, drums, Devin Hoff, bass, also vocalist Faye Carol, violinists, other guests)
This project, recorded in San Francisco, is not focused on the African country of Angola but the state penitentiary in Southern Louisiana – now over a century old. It is another in the current crop of concept albums having a spiritual/social concern theme which are coming from many jazz artists. Wiley was inspired by the historic field recordings made in the 1950s by Alan Lomax and Harry Oster, including the “Angola Prison Spirituals.” The idea is to use some of these traditional songs and originals as starting points for improvisations and compositions making social commentary within a historical framework. Some of the instrumentals are adapted from the Lomax recordings of the songs of a capella groups of prisoners.
One track with a spoken section is based on an interview Lomax did with a prisoner. During the interview, the prisoner calls Lomax “Boss” – the same term still used for the overseer during slavery. A wrenching expansion of Amazing Grace – the well-known Christian hymn – exposes the hypocrisy in its history: The composer John Newton became an Anglican minister as part of his newfound faith, but continued to trade in slaves for several more years.
Some of the tracks, such as the opening Twelve Gates, are almost in the free jazz vein, yet others are clearly steeped in the roots music of the prisoners’ songs and chants. The overall impression is one of deep power and conviction; a very moving and compelling album.
TrackList: 12 Gates to the City, Angola, The Conversation, Trouble of the World, Peace, Rosie, No More My Lawd, Rise & Fly, Amazing Grace, Second Line.
– John Henry