Tucked away next to a Telegraph Avenue laundromat, Gregory Howe’s Wide Hive Records is making jazz history.
It’s not just that Howe has recorded and produced several dozen finely crafted albums, including important projects featuring veteran masters such as Oakland guitarist Calvin Keys, Los Angeles bassist Henry “The Skipper” Franklin, and New York drummer Mike Clark. The Berkeley audiophile has also documented young players on the cusp of major breakthroughs.
Years before LA saxophone star Kamasi Washington started blowing away audiences at festivals like Coachella with his ecstatic improvisational flights Howe captured his tenor prowess on the Throttle Elevator Music series. Released in 2020, the fourth Throttle volume Emergency Exit features Washington’s vaulting saxophone set amidst a stellar Bay Area ensemble playing tunes by Howe and bassist Matt Montgomery, who created the material to showcase the saxophonist’s dazzling expressive palette.
It’s a hands-on approach to producing, a concept that Howe credits to Keys. “Calvin told me 20 years ago that music requires shapes and forms,” Howe said. “It’s really important to study what’s being created, to find the essence of it. Things can become over-complicated. At its heart, music wants to speak truth, speak directly. If you can find that intention and help the creative process, you’re doing your job as a producer.”
Keys has been a guiding force at Wide Hive since the beginning. Howe featured him on the label’s inaugural release Dissent in 1998, a project focusing on Howe’s original songs with singer/songwriter Nathalie Sanchez. A crate digger always on the lookout for rare and interesting vinyl, he discovered Keys through his classic 1971 album Shawn-Neeq, an early gem from the Oakland-based Black Jazz label (a collector’s item reissued on CD a few years ago by Tompkins Square Records).
The guitarist quietly turned 80 last March, an occasion that should have been more widely noted. An Omaha native who’s been an essential creative force on the Bay Area scene since the 1970s, his influence has rippled out over the decades through his generosity as a mentor and his impact on fellow jazz innovators. Jazz guitar star Pat Metheny, a fellow Midwesterner, dedicated a tune to him, “Calvin’s Keys.” Piano patriarch Earl “Fatha” Hines, who helped shape jazz’s evolution through its first half-century from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker, hired him as music director. And NEA Jazz Master Ahmad Jamal built a quartet around him.
On Keys’ own albums, like his recent release Simply Calvin (full disclosure, I wrote the liner notes), the guitarist tends to concentrate on swinging straight-ahead jazz, the broad-spectrum idiom that’s defined his career. But working with Howe, Keys stretches out “more toward the funk thing,” he said. His new album Blue Keys is a quintessential Wide Hive production, surrounding the guitarist with a heavyweight cast including alto saxophone great Gary Bartz, bassist Henry Franklin, percussionist Babatunde Lea, and trombonist Steve Turre (who also created a gorgeous setting for conch shell choir on Keys’ “Ck 22”).
Those players intertwine with a group of Bay Area stalwarts like drummer Mike Hughes, pianist Mike Blankenship, Berkeley trombonist Mike Rinta, and Howe himself on various keyboards and percussion, creating coruscating funk-informed settings that buoy Keys’ stinging single-note lines. “I’ve been into the Trane and Miles thing all these years, the music I was raised with,” Keys said. “The records I’ve done with Gregory, I’m searching for something else.”
No artist has played a more important role in implementing Howe’s musical vision than Berkeley-reared trumpeter Erik Jekabson, who performs with the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra featuring vocalist Kalil Wilson Sunday at the California Jazz Conservatory as part of the school’s 25th anniversary celebration.
He entered the Wide Hive fold when Howe hired him to create trumpet and flugelhorn parts for the Throttle Elevator Music sessions. Kamasi Washington was still making a name for himself on the LA jazz scene, and Jekabson got to know his music by studying the solos he’d recorded, a time-intensive endeavor.
“It was kind of fun and challenging to learn and harmonize some of the melodies he was playing,” said Jekabson, who went on to release a series of his own Wide Hive albums featuring his quintet and sextet with fellow Berkeley High grad Dave Ellis on saxophone. “I hadn’t done anything like that before, taking these improvised passages and adding on to them, creating something when you’ve got time to spend in the studio to make them as cool and interesting as possible.”
Howe’s mission at Wide Hive isn’t geared toward any specific outcome, except for his obsession with recording equipment and warm but unobtrusive acoustics. Many of the albums he’s produced are crafted in multiple sessions, but others unfold in real time, documenting a particular encounter. Multi-instrumentalist, composer and NEA Jazz Master Roscoe Mitchell, a founding member of the protean Art Ensemble of Chicago and the pioneering Afrocentric collective Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, has recorded seven albums for Wide Hive, projects that have been central in documenting his undiminished creative prowess in his eighth decade (the AARP ain’t for the AACM).
Mitchell was the in the midst of his 12-year run at Mills College as the Darius Milhaud Chair in Composition when a mutual friend introduced him to Howe, who promptly suggested he record for the label. Meeting up outside the Berkeley studio, “he looked off into the distance and said, ‘Ya know, man, I’m ready for anything,’” Howe recalled. “I knew something interesting was going to happen.” The first session led to 2013’s Duets with Tyshawn Sorey and Special Guest Hugh Ragin. Ragin, a sly trumpeter who started his career with Mitchell in the ‘70s, and Sorey, a drummer who’s emerged as a celebrated jazz and new music composer awarded a coveted MacArthur Fellowship in 2017, plunged into Mitchell’s compositions, which combine intricate notation and spontaneous improvisation.
He followed up with 2014’s Conversations I and II with keyboardist Craig Taborn and percussionist Kikanju Baku, consistently probing albums with a striking cover photo taken outside Shakespeare & Co. The material proved to be remarkably pliable as Mitchell “transcribed many of the pieces and expanded them into orchestral works that he performed around the world,” Howe said, noting that several of the expanded works are featured on 2019’s Roscoe Mitchell Orchestra Littlefield Concert Hall Mills College.
Born and raised in a family with Santa Barbara roots going back to the late 1800s, Howe moved out to Oakland in the early 1990s after college. Looking to break into the Bay Area music scene, he supported himself tending bar at Raleigh’s Pub while performing regularly up the street at Larry Blake’s with the fusion band Liquid Ambar. The group included a saxophonist named Ethan Diamond (who went on to co-found and run Bandcamp) and Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra trumpeter Tim Hyland, who led Albany High’s award-winning R&B combo Rhythm Bound before his death in 2010. When the band broke up and Howe started thinking about pursuing a career outside of music, Hyland encouraged him to follow his passion. “Tim was really mentor and I follow a lot of his advice to this day,” Howe said.
Howe’s initial ambition for Wide Hive was more along the lines of a night club and recording studio, a la the Mid-Market jazzspot Mr. Tipple’s, but his attempt to navigate San Francisco’s permitting process drained his bank account before he came close to opening the doors for his Mission District venue. “The idea was a live recording jazz café, which in hindsight was pretty ambitious,” he said. “I learned to focus on the one thing I really wanted to do, a record label.”
Back in Berkeley, he started producing from his living room until he moved operations into the 900-square-foot Telegraph space 15 years ago. For larger sessions he recorded at Fantasy Studios until the storied facility closed in the summer of 2018. “I loved Studio A,” he said. “That room had some magic.”
One of his primary ambitions is documenting artists who have been underappreciated, like L.A. trombonist Phil Ranelin, who introduced Howe to Kamasi Washington. Wide Hive isn’t the only label working this angle. Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the DJ and producer best known for his foundational work with A Tribe Called Quest, and veteran R&B and hip-hop composer-producer Adrian Younge, have been recording veteran masters in R&B and hip-hop settings for the past few years on the L.A.-based Jazz Is Dead label, which showcased Henry Franklin and Gary Bartz on a tour that played San Francisco’s August Hall last month.
Franklin has been a mainstay on the Southland scene since the mid-1960s, when he played a key role in the rise of Hugh Masekela from hard-bop trumpeter to superstar with the chart-topping 1968 hit “Grazing In the Grass.” Like Keys, Franklin recorded his debut album, 1972’s The Skipper, for Black Jazz (and played on Keys’ second Black Jazz project 1974’s Proceed with Caution! While the bassist has produced and released more than a dozen excellent albums on his Skipper Productions label in recent years Franklin has welcomed the attention garnered by his work for Jazz Is Dead and his new Wide Hive album Daggerboard & The Skipper (which features tunes by Howe and Jekabson and contributions by the likes of vibraphonist Roger Glenn and violinist Mads Tolling).
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “As you get to be old, they call you a legend. Jazz is Dead and Wide Hive, they’ve been beautiful outlets for me. These projects are completely different. Gregory’s got his own formula, which does work. He surrounds me with good musicians, and the music is always challenging. You never know what’s coming up next. He likes to explore different time signatures, which is kind of different for me.”
With albums by drummer Mike Clark and a major new work by Jekabson in the pipeline, the Wide Hive buzz is only going to get louder.
When New York choreographer Lisa Jaroslow first encountered Berkeley bassist Lisa Mezzacappa at San Francisco’s ODC Dance Commons she was immediately drawn to the intense but approachable musician. She’d read an article about Mezzacappa a few years earlier and was deeply impressed by the sheer multiplicity of her creative endeavors as a bandleader, composer, curator and freewheeling improviser. Mezzacappa was performing with the Paul Dresher Ensemble in the West Coast premiere of Jaroslow’s Resist/Surrender during Jaroslow & Dancers’ inaugural Bay Area season in 2015. The bassist “did not disappoint,” Jaroslow said. Indeed, the choreographer was so intrigued by Mezzacappa’s physicality with the instrument that she suggested they start getting together for informal sessions, a process of experimentation that culminated in Touch Bass, an evening-length work that debut at ODC Theatre in the spring of 2017. In a rare reprise, Jaroslow and Mezzacappa bring the work to Berkeley on Sept. 10-11 as part of BAMPFA’s performance series Full.
Featuring dancers Anna Greenberg, Karla Quintero, and Cauveri Suresh, and a double bass triumvirate of Mezzacappa, Shayna Dulberger and Dan Seamans, the piece was inspired partly by the movements involved in playing the instrument and just getting it to and from a performance. “Every musician is in tune with the physicality of their instrument, but bassists have all of that magnified,” Mezzacappa told me before the ODC premiere. “We’re always negotiating its physicality. One of my favorite maneuvers is moving between the bar and the tables in the bar when no one will get out of the way, or getting up and down stairs. What happened with Risa was this close examination of the angle of the wrist or bow. As bassists, we’re thinking about how to make the sound. It’s so interesting for someone to look at it from the outside, amplifying that and calling attention to it.”