Saxophonist and composer Howard Wiley's previous album, The Angola Project, was, like this one, inspired by the music of prisoners in Louisiana's notorious maximum-security plantation prison at Angola. The Angola Project consisted of jazz adaptations of work songs and spirituals recorded on-site in the 1930s and 1950s, and it was a dark and serious piece of work. 12 Gates to the City is no less serious, but it is considerably more joyful, and was inspired by the music (much of it gospel-based) that Wiley heard prisoners perform when he visited Angola himself. This disc will inevitably be categorized as "jazz," but the reality is much more complicated: much of the music on this program is carefully orchestrated and arranged, and although there are solos throughout the album, the pieces tend not to follow the head-solos-head convention of straight-ahead jazz. There are lots of vocals, but most of the time they take the form of scatting and vocalese, and a small string section makes sporadic appearances as well. The chord progressions frequently evoke gospel music more than jazz. All of that said, the compositions are mostly brilliant: "Old Highway 66" was written with thoughts of Angola Prison's only road in mind, and features a spoken performance by Bicasso; "Endless Fields" features some amazing interplay between Wiley's soprano saxophone and the string players; "In His Name" is a sort of acoustic hip-hop with a slippery New Orleans beat and mournful strings; "My God (New Angola)" is the most conventionally jazzy track, and is lovely. A few tracks fall rather flat and the liner notes (a long essay about prison and racial politics by co-producer Daniel Atkinson) are a bit tendentious, but for the most part the music is amazing.
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AllMusic Review by Rick Anderson