Immanuel Wilkins Preaches the Word

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“We’re sacrificing our bodies to innate feeling and becoming vessels for this music,” Wilkins says.

(Photo: Rog Walke)

“My work is the intersection between spiritual practice and Black aesthetics,” Immanuel Wilkins says. “The two symbols I draw from are John Coltrane and the Black Church.”

At age 24, saxophonist and composer Wilkins has established himself as a uniquely thoughtful and empathetic voice in jazz. He weaves lyrical alto lines around the intricate instrumentation of his long-established quartet to produce music that traverses everything from skewed Thelonious Monk melodies to the raw power of Ornette Coleman’s breath. Signed to Blue Note at 22 with his 2020 debut album Omega, Wilkins has toured with the likes of Jason Moran, Aaron Parks and Wynton Marsalis as well as collaborating on interdisciplinary projects with choreographer Sidra Bell, photographer Rog Walker and artist David Dempewolf.

His latest LP, The 7th Hand, is his most ambitious work to date. Referencing free-jazz, Biblical vesselhood and performance art in its seven-track suite, the record culminates in a 26-minute composition where Wilkins’ quartet aims to become conduits for a free-flowing improvisation directed from a higher entity. It is a heavy concept worn lightly — the divine hand passing through their intuitive instrumental communication to produce the wails, moans and emotive charges of creativity itself.

This commitment to a bone-deep ancestry of improvised music began during Wilkins’ Philadelphia childhood, where he was surrounded by the music of the city’s native son Coltrane and the uniquely Black space of the church. Starting out on the violin at 3, before moving to the saxophone at 8 in order to gain a spot in his school band, he soon realized that music brought with it an innate sense of fellowship.

“When I started playing the saxophone, community came with it,” Wilkins says over a video call from his New York apartment. “I was enrolled in the band and then the Clef Club — a great community organization and old musicians’ union house — which gave me access to so many opportunities, like playing with the Sun Ra Arkestra at 12 after Marshall Allen took me under his wing. I didn’t know who they were at the time — I just thought it was some old people I could play with — but it meant that I learned the music on the bandstand.”

Wilkins smilingly refers to this through his cascade of long braids as the “old school way”; the sweat and muscle memory of playing through the changes in front of an audience, rather than in front of just a music stand. That focus on playing — and the freewheeling notion of play — continued as Wilkins entered his teens and began performing at his local church as well as at jam nights. “Jam sessions in Philly are different from any other,” he says. “They would call ’Trane songs, and we would play for 30 or 40 minutes, sometimes just one chord for an hour with only three or four horn players. There was a concerted effort to not stop until there was some sort of transcendent breakthrough in the music.”

Equally, the church brought its own transcendence. Consistently filling in for absent band members, Wilkins developed his skills on bass and organ, as well as saxophone, before settling behind the keyboard for weekly services.

“The music controls the mood and flow of the service and the chords I would play were directly related to someone catching the spirit or how they internalized the preacher’s message,” he says. “I was improvising, but it meant that I had to be in tune with God and then in tune with the feeling in the room. You have to be like water, flowing through and pushing.”

Indeed, water and its intrinsic fluidity are central themes for Wilkins’ current work. The cover image for The 7th Hand depicts Wilkins half-submerged in a river, surrounded by Black women and with his head cradled in the gloved caress of an adorned priestess. “I call it a remix of a baptism,” Wilkins says. “Firstly, you don’t usually see women baptizing, so I thought it’d be nice to surround myself in the care of Black women here. One of the women to the right also has long nails and a lace front, and I was challenging the notion of which aesthetics are deemed holy and which aren’t as accepted with her inclusion.”

It is a deeply engaging image — one centered on Wilkins’ peacefulness in the cyclical surrounds of these women. The reimagined baptism serves as a symbol for the immersion in the Holy Spirit that Wilkins and his band then attempt during the record itself. “Water flows through the vessel but at the moment of vesselhood you are not only a conduit, you are subsumed, too,” Wilkins says. “That’s what we wanted to capture by the time we reach the seventh track: We’re sacrificing our bodies to innate feeling and becoming vessels for this music.”

Referencing the Biblical symbolism of the number seven as representative of divine intervention — exceeding six as the limits of human possibility — Wilkins sees this work as something ineffable and only possible in the purely improvised moment of its making. “I was interested in putting the body through something rigorous, in order to produce a result that is out of body and is also dangerous, since we didn’t know what would happen,” he says. “We just went into the studio and recorded all six compositions in order — by the seventh, I told the band to play freely.”

The result is a yearning, striving 26 minutes, building from chromatic bop lines on Wilkins’s saxophone, backed by punchy comping from pianist Micah Thomas, to guttural moans intersecting with bassist Daryl Johns’ languid plucking, and ultimately ending on the textural explosion of drummer Kweku Sumbry’s Latin-infused cymbal work, where Wilkins’ horn reaches higher and higher as if speaking, screeching in tongues.

It is a composition that expresses the telepathic communication of a band that has spent many more years playing together than Wilkins’ age would imply. Initially meeting bassist Johns at Christian McBride’s Jazz House Kids summer camp when they were in their early teens, Wilkins went on to collaborate with pianist Thomas while the pair were at Juilliard. Drummer Sumbry first played with Wilkins during a session for vibraphonist Joel Ross. “The first time we all played together, it felt like this is what we should be doing, and so we kept it together,” Wilkins says.

Gigging regularly around New York, the band soon built a repertoire of original music that formed the basis for Omega. “We had been playing as a band for about three years at that point, so we had a lot of work under our belt,” Wilkins says. “We chose the music for Omega from about 20 compositions we had been playing live. And it soon became apparent that the unifying theme of those works was a cross between the sublime and the grotesque.”

Quoting the filmmaker Arthur Jafa’s assertion that “Black people have the responsibility to mine the ruins,” Wilkins goes on to explain how Omega is an expression of the nuanced and often contradictory foundations of the Black American experience. “I was confronting painful moments in our history to mine these ruins and see what comes out in those situations,” he says. “The juxtaposition between that and the sublime gives you the intricacy of life that is so valuable to Black people — it’s what sustains us. It’s how we’re able to spin the trauma and create hilarious material on Twitter; it’s a specific complexity that is like salted caramel — things that shouldn’t necessarily be together. I’m fascinated with that and how to create it in an aural sense.”

Released to critical acclaim in August 2020, Omega’s exploration of these psychosocial “ruins” took the form of searching instrumental tributes to the Ferguson riots of 2014, following the police killing of Michael Brown, as well as a requiem for the 1918 lynching victim Mary Turner. As with so much of Wilkins’ output, his compositions express remarkable complexity and emotional depth, considering several were written when he was only in high school. Yet, he views his social commentary as merely following in the footsteps of his jazz forebearers. “The greats all express the push and pull, that tension between sublimity and pain — the jagged edges that are essential to Black art forms,” he says. “It is a perfect imperfection.”

Ever since his youth, playing at the Clef Club, connecting with this jazz lineage in the form of mentorship has been key for Wilkins’ growth and development. He signposts Aaron Parks as an early supporter of his work as well as Wynton Marsalis, “who would change my life every time we talked, since he’s just so opinionated,” he laughs. Pianist Jason Moran has done more than perhaps any other, though, to encourage Wilkins’ current success. Taking him on his first European tour while he was at Juilliard — to the slight consternation of his professors — Moran taught Wilkins the rigor of seeking inspiration when playing the same music every night for weeks.

“He would always tell me to get out and see where we had travelled to, no matter how tired I might be,” Wilkins says. “I know that’s how he gets his inspiration to perform every night, and it’s become the same for me. All the senses have to be engaged before I get on the bandstand because it gives me something to draw from.”

It is an interdisciplinary practice that has translated into the quartet’s ongoing experimentations with collaboration — whether with dance, visual art or even cooking during the 2021 show Blues Blood/Black Future. “Working in different mediums feeds me and it has meant that our band is really backlogged with music,” Wilkins says. “We have a lot of compositions in the vault and not that many records released. For the next three or four, we’ve already played the music and will continue to work it out until it’s time to record.”

Just as Moran took Wilkins under his wing, ultimately producing Omega and sending it to Blue Note boss Don Was, Wilkins is using his own position now to uplift others. “When I think of mentorship, I think of people who will do the work when you’re out of the room and who set the table for you before you get there,” he says. “I owe a lot to my mentors and with my own classes, I just want to blow my students’ minds in the same way mine has been blown many times before.”

His current workload includes teaching lessons at the New School, as well as running an elective class for non-musicians at NYU on listening to and appreciating jazz. “I’m getting this reputation as an educator, but I’m only 24,” he laughs. “I sometimes feel awkward teaching people my age or older but you have to let go of ego on both ends to make it work. I’m focused on playing, but I still feel like I have a lot to offer.”

Namely, Wilkins is committed to enacting diversity and equality in the jazz ecosystem. “There need to be more women and more Black people playing jazz and it has to happen young, when you first pick up an instrument, because by high school so many people are then phased out,” he says. “In inner-city areas — places that are mainly Black — arts programs just don’t exist. If there’s no encouragement in the school system, you won’t see that diversity in the scene.”

In carving out such a prominent space for himself, Wilkins is already acting as a role model for the changes he wishes to see. “I was 22 when I got signed to Blue Note and there was pressure in feeling like I’m existing on the shoulders of all the greats who came before me,” he says. “It’s important for me not to crush under that pressure. Instead, I just want to contribute to the archive with well thought-out music that I believe in and that will stand the test of time.”

With two timeless albums already under his belt, Wilkins is only just getting started. DB




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