Lamentations about the wounds inflicted by gentrification can start to sound like a broken record, a repetitive refrain cursing ill effects without offering much in the way of antidotes. The new band Black London takes a very different tact. Spearheaded by three East Bay musicians old enough to have been directly shaped by the seminal jazz, gospel, funk, R&B and hip-hop artists who put Oakland on the map, the project is envisioned as an ark ensuring that African-American culture survives and thrives in the face of ongoing displacement.
Featuring saxophonist Howard Wiley and keyboardists Kev Choice and Mike Blankenship, Black London debuts Friday at Yoshi’s with a track-by-track celebration of D’Angelo’s landmark album Voodoo, which was released 20 years ago almost to the day (Jan. 25, 2000). The Kev Choice Trio and a special guest play the early show. The idea for Black London has been bouncing around for several years in texts and conversations between the three musicians, whose extensive credits as bandleaders and sidemen include a stint together touring with Lauryn Hill when Choice served as her music director.
“We’ve been talking about it and talking about it and it just felt right,” says Wiley, who can be found playing drums with Lavay Smith’s Red Hot Skillet Lickers or tenor sax with the funk/jazz quartet Extra Nappy every Wednesday at the Madrone Art Bar. “Everybody is busy as hell, but the time felt right.”
Bearing witness to the drastic changes taking place across the region, they’re on the frontlines of a seismic demographic shift that’s recalibrating how Oakland sounds. “When I first started playing in early 2000s, predominantly everyone I played with was Black,” said the Concord-reared Blankenship, who’s also toured extensively with Sheila E and Michael Franti. “It’s not an exclusionary thing. We represented the people of the city and we were playing music for the people. But in the last 15 years that really changed, first slowly then rapidly. There are a lot of good non-Black musicians carrying on the tradition of Black music in Oakland. But a lot of Black musicians fell off the map.”
The cast they’ve assembled for Friday’s show can only be described as an embarrassment of riches, built on a powerhouse rhythm section tandem of Jennifer Hudson bassist Marcus Phillips and Fantastic Negrito drummer Dame Drummer. The vocalists includes Omega Rae and Luq Frank singing background and Jennifer Johns and Con Brio’s Ziek McCarter singing lead. Trumpeter Geechi Taylor joins Wiley in the horn section. And with two versatile keyboard players, they’ve got all the sonic bases covered.
“Me and Kev have a long history of playing together,” Blankenship says. “Our styles are different and we don’t get in each other’s way. A lot of stuff on Voodoo has two guitar parts, so I’ll use a guitar patch for those songs. There are so many things you can do with keyboards. You’re not restricted to a particular sound.”
The decision to focus on Voodoo is both a generational statement and a savvy concession to the need to fill the room. As Wiley notes, the album was one of those releases “that touched you enough that you had to go to the record store. I loved the J Dilla camp that had a lot of jazz elements. When you mix all that up, the swing, the blues, the church and the street, that’s where we’re all coming from.”
Indeed, D’Angelo drew on the East Bay’s roiling pool of talent for Voodoo. He featured Raphael Saadiq prominently on two tracks, “The Line” and “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” and guitarist Charlie Hunter is all over the joint. But the vision for Black London extends far beyond any one album, no matter how crisp the grooves. They hope to turn the project into an East Bay vehicle much like the West Coast Get Down serves as an umbrella outfit for Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, and that prodigious Los Angeles crew.
“Our goal is that it’ll create the awareness and we can keep putting out a steady flow of content,” Blankenship says. “Not just our own albums. We’ve all put in our time. We’re at the point where we work with so many people who have yet to take that plunge, friends who want to put out their own albums. We want to feature some of the great talent, and we’re looking to create a platform that elevates them as well.”
History’s ironies bounce around inside Black London. The moniker plays off the name Jack London, who was both an avowed socialist dedicated to fighting for the working class and an utterly unexceptional white supremacist. Riffing off the name of Oakland’s favorite son, Black London is planting a flag to reclaim territory physically and sonically. There was a there there in Oakland, a landscape and soundscape shaped by an incalculably rich mélange of artists and the deeply informed audiences that supported the music in nightclubs, bars, dives, and storefront art spaces. Change might be inevitable, but Black London is banking that if properly nurtured the grooves are too deep to fade.
“I’ve been telling everybody we’re the last of the Mohicans,” Wiley said. “We have to figure something out collectively. I sound like Oakland, like I went to Ed Kelly’s class at Laney, like I used to get cut by Jules Broussard, like I came up in the Boom Boom Room.”
And if Black London has its way, that Oaklandish sound of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Jan. 24, 10 p.m., $25, Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland, 510-238-9200, Yoshis.com