Sax man Howard Wiley: jazz should be sexy
By Andrew Gilbert
East Bay saxophonist Howard Wiley is bringing sexy back.
One of the Bay Area’s premier tenor players (and an accomplished drummer), he has little time for jazz geared more to impress fellow musicians than to move casual listeners.
The group he brings to Cafe Stritch on Thursday shares his old-school proclivities, and they’re dedicated to playing music “that you can bring your girlfriend to,” says Wiley from his home in Hercules, referring to the all-too-frequent gender imbalance found in jazz clubs.
With his aversion to musicians who avoid blues feeling and swing, jazz’s fundamental rhythmic feel, Wiley practices what he preaches on and off the bandstand. “I’ll walk out of a jazz show if you’re messing up date night,” he says.
Possessing a thick, brawny tone and well-honed skill at delivering compelling solos in the course of a few choruses, Wiley learned his craft by rubbing shoulders with veterans who came of age long before he was born. An essential member of Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, he credits masters like the late trumpeter Allen Smith, saxophonist Jules Broussard, and trombonist Danny Armstrong with teaching him the value of connecting emotionally with an audience.
"I was always attracted to the older cats," Wiley says.
He last performed at Cafe Stritch during trombone great Steve Turre’s inaugural run focusing on the music of multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a jazz visionary with unabashed populist appeal. The quartet Wiley presents Thursday features rising drum star Malachi Whitson, veteran bassist Ron Belcher, and Oakland pianist Kevin Choice, who served as music director for Lauryn Hill during the year that Wiley spent on the road with her. A good portion of the band’s book features Wiley’s arrangements of pop and R&B hits from the 1980s, updating the jazz tradition of using popular music as fodder for improvisation.
"I like to have fun, and I’ve just about had it with the intellectual, heady jazz shows. Don’t get me wrong. I have every Steve Coleman album, and I’ve taken lessons from Greg Osby," Wiley says, referring to two pervasively influential alto saxophonists and bandleaders. "Every time I see them, they play some blues and something funky. That seems to be lost now among younger players.
"We need to make a major course correction," he continues. "Every time I hear a Woody Shaw album, he’ll play something really complicated and then some blues. Duke did the same thing. Charlie Parker did it too, playing music that’s intellectually and spiritually fulfilling."
While some of his peers are loath to address an audience, preferring to let their music speak for itself, Wiley welcomes the chance to chat. In a throwback to the days when comics and jazz musicians frequented the same joints and often shared a bill, he’s taken to delivering comedic commentary in between songs, a practice he witnessed firsthand from jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody and Benny Golson.
Humor and wit, essential but sometimes forgotten ingredients in jazz, are all the more important given Wiley’s immersion in the soul-rending depths of the African-American experience. He gained national attention with two projects inspired by the spirituals and work songs recorded at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, 2007’s “The Angola Project” and 2010’s “Twelve Gates to the City” (featuring Faye Carol).
Between the first and second albums, he spent time researching the music directly at the source with musicologist Daniel Atkinson, supported by a grant from Meet the Composer. The experience of hearing Angola inmates performing sacred songs connecting back to the days of slavery continues to shape the music he plays today.
Despite Wiley’s renown as a saxophonist, he can often be found behind a trap set. He’ll be on drums backing Lavay Smith at the SFJazz Center’s Joe Henderson Lab from March 6 to March 9 on a residency exploring the legacies of iconic singers Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Etta James and Sarah Vaughan.
On March 13, he’s back at the Joe Henderson Lab leading his own project as part of the SFJazz Hotplate series, which features Bay Area artists paying tribute to masters who influenced them. Wiley sees no contradiction between his populist crusade and exploring the music of avant-garde patriarch Ornette Coleman, who learned bebop and gutbucket blues growing up in Texas and went on to expand jazz’s rhythmic and harmonic conventions in mid-1950s Los Angeles.
"I can’t get away from Ornette," Wiley says. "Really, everything I play is about my West Coast jazz heroes: Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon, (Charles) Mingus, Ornette, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins. Ornette wrote so many great tunes, and he’s so deep in the blues. We’ll be taking Ornette back to Texas."