If it doesn’t have soul and feeling, Howard Wiley doesn’t want to hear it. And he sure doesn’t want to play it. The native Berkeleyite, best known around these parts as the nattily attired saxophonist in Lavay Smith’s Red Hot Skillet Lickers, has standards when it comes to jazz that go beyond just attaining technical proficiency with jazz standards.
Chops are nice, Wiley says, but “we need to keep the focus on that folk quality.” After all, he explains, “the music came from field shouts and hollers and the blues.” So while Wiley loves John Coltrane and Miles Davis as much as the next cat, he draws equal inspiration from Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Still, he adds, “As much of an interest and focus as I’ve given to tradition, I still have an interest in modern music,” shouting out Greg Osby and the M-Base collective as examples of contemporary excellence.
Wiley’s bold, confident tone gives his horn plenty of personality — it’s almost closer to a baritone than a tenor — and though he’s very much in the “now” on his latest album, 21st Century Negro, his sound is informed by bluesy underpinnings that keep him, as he says, “rooted” in jazz’s history. “To forge ahead, you have to know the past,” he insists. “A lot of young musicians don’t really have a historical perspective.”
The same cannot be said of Wiley, who emphasizes that jazz is a continuum — “Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie all came from somewhere.” And though there’s more talent — both veteran and emerging — than there are local venues for jazz, he feels there’s no chance that the genre will ever become obsolete, “as long as that soul and that feeling is there.” When that happens, he rhapsodizes, “you hear transcendent spirituality. … I always try to incorporate that into my playing.” Wiley’s spirited sax will be on display Sunday, when he headlines Kick Back Sundays, the new jazz and spoken-word showcase happening weekly at Kimball’s Carnival. $5 at the door. For more info, visit KimballsCarnival.com or call 415-846-9432.