Inspired by field recordings of inmates at Louisiana’s Angola Prison, Howard Wiley’s Angola Project recreates their rustic folk sound. Yet the tenor saxophonist’s craftsmanship is also on display, generating a tension that defines the album as much as the subject does. It’s a superb achievement. Gospel is the dominant motif: Four of 10 tracks are spirituals, and nearly all arrangements draw on the church, as do Wiley’s compositions. His “Angola” and “The Conversation” feature moaning female voices (Jeannine Anderson) and gently rocking rhythms behind his sax’s—and, on “Angola,” David Murray’s—cathartic wails, sounding like a loose Pentecostal choir. Indeed, Wiley’s playing is “folk” in the manner of Ornette Coleman’s: prizing instinct over technique, blowing pure emotion despite harmony or form. (Wiley amplifies his obvious debt by including Coleman’s “Peace.”)
Wiley never abandons discipline, though. He casts the traditional “Twelve Gates to the City” in a curious 52-bar structure even as he gives it a primal stomp, and updates call-and-response traditions on “Rosie” with a precise eight-part-ensemble theme that nonetheless suggests calls and responses. The subtle architecture reinforces that at the music’s heart is imprisonment, which Wiley evokes with recurring martial drum rolls and licks. That conflict between rawness and polish, freeform and rigidity, illuminates the miserable experience of Angola, which the liners call “one of the last holdouts of the antebellum plantation system.” But if The Angola Project testifies to the despair and dark-at-best hope within those walls, it also heralds the breakthrough of a remarkable talent in Howard Wiley.