Saxophonist Kamasi Washington achieved stardom with his 2015 three-CD set, The Epic, and his work on rapper Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly, but he’s got a broader body of work awaiting discovery. He’s performed as a sideman on albums by Gerald Wilson, George Duke, Stanley Clarke and others, and between 2011 and 2016, he recorded five albums’ worth of material as a member of a studio project called Throttle Elevator Music. The group’s latest release, Retrorespective, is their last, but the man behind it, producer Greg Howe, has no plans to stop making music himself.
Howe is the brains behind Wide Hive, a recording studio and independent label based in Berkeley, California. Since 1997, he and a crew of musicians known as the Wide Hive Players have been producing albums, on their own and with a variety of guests from across the jazz spectrum. Trombonist Phil Ranelin and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell have made multiple records for Wide Hive. Indeed, the session for Ranelin’s Perseverance was where Washington first came to Howe’s attention.
Kamasi Washington appeared on the latest Throttle Elevator Music album, Retrorespective
“I met Kamasi at that session,” Howe says, “and the first solo he took, I was like, ‘Holy shit, that guy can play.’ We recorded it down in L.A., so I went down there and met Kamasi and a bunch of other great players at that time.”
Another jazz star who came into the Wide Hive orbit was guitarist Larry Coryell (1943–2017), who made four albums for the label. Howe remembers Coryell as “a jazz mentor for me. Larry was a fearless, uncompromising musician—whenever we did sessions with him, everybody was 100 percent focused, because his musical knowledge was unparalleled.”
Coryell first recorded for Wide Hive in 2010, accompanied by the Wide Hive Players.
“We did the first session, and there were a few tense moments,” Howe recalls. “He had introduced a track that was in 13, and it was a very strange 13; it was an Indian kind of composition. So we were bouncing it off our musical community, and everybody there is astute—everybody reads, everybody plays—but it was just one of these things where you were like, ‘Wow, where is the one?’ And Larry didn’t get mad at anybody; he went in the other room and meditated and did his Buddhist ritual, and he came back in and said, ‘Let’s take it again,’ and it was one of those moments where everybody just got their shit together and played the tune.”
Larry Coryell recorded Heavy Feel for the Wide Hive label in 2015.
The five Throttle Elevator Music releases are some of the most aggressive and high-energy music on the label. Howe wrote, arranged and produced the material along with multi-instrumentalist Matt Montgomery; Washington and a variety of guests (trumpeter Erik Jekabson, guitarist Ava Mendoza and drummer Mike “Lumpy” Hughes) fill out the ranks.
The songs vary widely in length. Retrorespective opens with the longest piece in their catalog, the eight-minute “Liminality,” while “Standards Reproach,” from the self-titled debut, sprints by in a mere 44 seconds. They cover a broad stylistic gamut, too, incorporating elements of jazz, funk, dub, garage rock and even hardcore punk.
“It was just kind of more organic than anything, to be a little more aggressive with the instrumental music,” Howe says of the concept behind Throttle Elevator Music. “I think jazz needs to expand. It needs to continually evolve. We were just trying to push the limit a little bit. The first session we did with Kamasi, at Fantasy [Studios in Berkeley], we did two sessions in two days and both were records. And then we did a bunch more recording up here at Wide Hive…Kamasi came through three times and blew on probably 60 tracks. It was incredible—we were just throwing tracks at him and he was thinking on his feet and playing.”
Throttle Elevator Music may have come to an end, but Howe and Wide Hive have no plans to stop exploring their unique blend of funk, rock, soul and jazz. “I think that [project]’s kind of fulfilled its destiny, but the players are all continuing,” says Howe. “I just finished a record with Erik Jekabson and his quintet that’s very CTI-sounding. He’s got a great feel. And then we recorded Matt Montgomery, the bassist, and Mike Hughes, the drummer, and a new guitar player, Mike Ramos—it’s still a little bit with the Throttle energy, shades of punk and rock and a little international.” DB