Howard Wiley got his ass kicked. Not just once or twice, but regularly, and often in plain view of the public. Unabashed, he kept coming back to the bandstand to take his licks, which is the reason why he’s the most prodigious Bay Area saxophonist of his generation.
Last month found him touring Europe with the resurgent Hammond B-3 organ great Doug Carn, who featured Wiley on 2015’s My Spirit (Doodlin’ Records), his first new album in decades. The saxophonist returned home to launch the San Francisco Jazz Festival, playing an outdoor street party one night and then moving inside the next evening to join B-3 master Chester Thompson in the SFJazz Center’s Joe Henderson Lab.
As a bandleader, his primacy vehicle these days is another B-3 combo, the funk and soul-infused Extra Nappy, an all-star quartet featuring Mars Volta drummer Thomas Pridgen, bassist Michael “Tiny” Lindsey, and veteran organist L.J. Holoman. The group plays a rare East Bay gig Saturday night at the California Jazz Conservatory.
“We are all church,” says Wiley, 39, referring to the band’s shared musical roots. “I started playing in the church and that’s the reason I love organ and drums so much. I’m definitely an organ tenor player.”
Wiley and his bandmates have honed a vast repertoire of funk, soul and R&B hits during its ongoing Wednesday night run at San Francisco’s Madrone Art Bar. Extra Nappy is also a regular presence at San Jose’s Café Stritch, but Saturday’s concert offers the rare opportunity to dedicate a show to the band’s funk-meets-improv originals. As Wiley puts it, “We are the jazziest jazz band that doesn’t play jazz.”
Wiley formed Extra Nappy after encountering Holoman at a big band rehearsal. He’d been hearing about the organist all his life, since he was a kid running around Oakland with drummer Darrell Green. At first he didn’t realize who he was dealing with at the session. All he knew was the keyboardist was relentless. “Every move I make he’s right there, steadily correcting me,” Wiley recalls. “Afterwards I realized it was L.J., who I knew of from growing up in church, but I didn’t know he was such a beast.”
He had heard about Holoman over the years as a gospel music powerhouse, and it wasn’t they been playing together in Extra Nappy for months that Wiley discovered he was hardly the first artist to call upon Holoman’s talents outside of church. Over the past two decades he’s toured and recorded with acts like Dr. Dre, Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, Raphael Saadiq and Tony! Toni! Toné!
But the fundamental connection between Wiley, Holomon, Pridgen, and Lindsey runs right through the pews. Growing up, Wiley frequented Oakland’s Star of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church with his grandmother, who hailed from Texas. His other grandmother went to a Triumph the Church of God and Kingdom in Christ in West Oakland, where the music was even more raucous.
“They’re jamming, doing a non-citified, fresh-off-the-farm way of praise,” Wiley says. “That’s what got me into second line. It sounded like church. When I got tired of talk in the Baptist church, I’d go down to street to Triumph, where the pastor’s wife played one of the coldest shout beats I’ve ever heard. She’d hike the church robe, and damn Miss Simon’s beat on the organ was swinging. That experience is the roots.”
He earned a coveted spot in the Berkeley High Jazz Band as a freshman, but ended up dropping out of the ensemble after one semester. Looking for a bigger challenge, Wiley convinced Dee Spencer to let him join the San Francisco State big band. After a few years he ended up leading the combo and competing at a collegiate level.
“At first I got my ass handed to me playing at SF State, just like I did in Faye Carol’s living room with John Turk, but it helped me get better,” Wiley says. “I was always chasing that thing.”
He was good enough to land a spot in the Grammy All-American Jazz Band, an elite combo with exceptional young players gleaned from high schools around the country. With future stars like pianist and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Jason Moran and drummer Ali Jackson, “I just got my ass kicked so bad.”
The Grammy Band is where Wiley first met Miles Mosley, the future Los Angeles bass star whose career has skyrocketed via his collaborations with tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington and rapper Kendrick Lamar. He brought Wiley in as a Bay Area ringer on 2017’s Uprising (Universal Music), a project showcasing his fellow Washington bandmates in the West Coast Get Down collective. There’s no lack of monster saxophonists in LA, but Mosley wrote in an email that Wiley “possess a rare form of focus and aggression in his playing, a sound that is at once heroic and determined.”
It’s true that Wiley projects a pugilistic intensity from the bandstand, but he’s a lover not a fighter. He likes to say Extra Nappy plays “date night” music, and he conceived the band as a conspicuously welcoming combo capable of attracting listeners not necessarily versed in jazz history.
While he’s most at home in organ settings, Wiley can fully inhabit any number of musical environments. He’s been an essential ingredient in Meklit’s Ethio-jazz-meets-East-Bay-grease sound, contributing baritone and tenor sax work throughout her acclaimed 2017 album When the People Move, The Music Moves Too (Six Degrees Records). He wields soprano, alto, and tenor on San Jose drummer Jemal Ramirez’s recent album African Skies (Joyful Beat Records), a consistently captivating sextet session featuring SFJazz Collective vibraphonist Warren Wolf.
Musicians outside the Bay Area are also hip to Wiley’s saxophone prowess. When it came time to record his 2016 debut album The Beast, drummer Jerome Jennings brought him out to New York to record with fellow heavyweights like bass star Christian McBride, trumpeter Sean Jones, and vocalist Jazzmeia Horn. Did I mention that he’s also a drummer with a deep pocket who’s spent recent years playing an array of shuffles and jazz grooves with Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers? He’ll be with the band at Biscuits & Blues June 29 and at the Fillmore Jazz Festival on July 1.