Sax star Immanuel Wilkins: ‘Hands are a symbol of praise – but they’re also raised at the police’ | Jazz

IManuel Wilkins appears on a video call from his Brooklyn apartment, staring intently at the laptop perched on his Fender Rhodes keyboard. A column of light bounces off his forehead and his red circular glasses slightly widen his eyes, making him look particularly absorbed in conversation.

We’re talking ahead of the release of The 7th Hand, the sequel to his Blue Note Records debut (“an alto saxophonist whose playing is both dazzlingly solid and flawlessly supple,” trilled the New York Times , as the album topped its Best Jazz of 2020 poll). He is warm, expansive and a little nervous. There’s a tantalizing moment where he considers playing Rhodes to explain a point, before shutting up, reconsidering, and starting over. He’s only 24, and yet this new album – which questions spirituality in its covers and contemporary dance in its videos – is mature and adventurous.

“At the heart of black existence, which is jazz music as well, is this idea of ​​in-between,” he says. “What makes jazz so great? It’s the solo, isn’t it? We play the lead [the central theme]then we remix, we do our own thing in between.

He was born in Philadelphia, moving 20 minutes east to suburban Upper Darby for elementary school: “I had weed. I had a play set in the garden. I had the life of a suburban child par excellence. An only child, music was how Wilkins made friends, via school bands and the historic Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts. Back home, his parents encouraged his music, perhaps living out their abandoned artistic dreams – he recently came across transcriptions of Archie Shepp and Benny Golson compiled by his father, who flirted with professional work as a as trombonist and flautist.

Wilkins is a member of the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ and began his musical career as the resident pianist in his local church’s worship band. “I realized early on that there was a correlation between the mood in the room and what I was playing. It was a turning point for me as a composer, player, everything. The idea of ​​being responsible for the way people consume spirit.

He quickly went through his first instruments: “I started the violin when I was three years old, and yes, it didn’t really work out. Then I tried the piano, and it wasn’t good. I tried to sing. Yeah…” he laughed. To convince his parents that he was serious about the saxophone (and to shell out the money for one of his own), Wilkins came home from church one Sunday and discovered that he “could already play one of the anthems [on it], like halfway, just. They said yes.

Growing up, it was all about saxophonist Kenny Garrett (“CE1, CM2, CM2, sixth, seventh…”) and advice passed down from Branford Marsalis, whose band his unofficial “big brother” Justin Faulkner had recently joined in drums. Fellow Philadelphia resident and longtime Sun Ra Arkestra leader and member Marshall Allen invited 12-year-old Wilkins to the famous Arkestra House in Germantown, where interstellar adventurers have lived since 1968. Wilkins was able to sit at Allen’s side and experience his caustic sound. “Marshall used to tie a red string around the bell of his saxophone, and I took a red strap and put it around mine to be like him.”

Perform at the 2021 Monterey Jazz Festival. Photography: Craig Lovell/Eagle Visions Photography/Alamy

Why did he leave then? “There are good colleges in Philadelphia, but I just wanted to go to Juilliard, I wanted to be around Wynton [Marsalis]– the Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter and teacher who characterizes august and elegant jazz. “So I got up and left.” Marsalis directed him to Ornette Coleman’s 1962 album Town Hall (“Emulating [Coleman’s] the sound became a big part of what I do”), and the move to New York also brought him closer to avant-garde pianist Jason Moran, who would later produce his debut album. “I first met him at an Aretha Franklin concert when I was a kid. Then whenever he was in Philadelphia, I went to all his concerts. When his drummer told me overheard in New York, he said to Jason, “Hey, you know that cat that used to come to all our gigs? He doesn’t sound that bad, you should probably give him a chance.” met his quartet (Micah Thomas, Daryl Johns and Kweku Sumbry); there’s now a buzz building around the four of them.

Juilliard’s jazz department shares a floor with the dance and theater divisions, and Wilkins regrets not branching out across disciplines sooner (his mother was a dancer and still dances in church on occasion) . The 7th Hand makes up for lost time, a collective creative statement rooted in black critical thinking. The cover, featuring mid-immersion Wilkins, remixes established ideas of southern black baptism, placing women in the traditionally male leadership role. “I guess I’m trying to ask, who is really worthy of being baptized? Or, what is the established imagery around holiness that we see? Meanwhile, the Emanation/Don’t Break video (with Farafina Kan Percussion Ensemble, and directed by Cauleen Smith, above) researches the connections between black dance styles – footwork, line dancing and double Dutch – weaving even richer symbolism into Wilkins’ Creation.

The title of the album comes from the Book of Ezekiel, where God commands Ezekiel to build an altar with the measurements of “six cubits and a hand’s breadth”.

“Hands are at the center of spiritual life, they are so powerful,” says Wilkins. “These hands raised in the church are a symbol of praise, aren’t they? But those same hands are also raised to the police. His philosophy and his music are utopian in an America that is not: “It’s about imagining a scenario that is so out of our reach, but that brings us to a certain truth that meets us further than we we are now.

The album continues where Omega’s rhapsody on the totality of black life left off: seven movements that flow together and culminate in Lift’s immersive 27-minute tapestry. Collective improvisation gradually subsumes the quartet as the record progresses; the group becomes vessels through which divine inspiration can flow freely. The sound is thrillingly diverse, moving quickly from harsh, driving dissonance to softer gospel tones, before exploding again into vibrant improvisation.

I ask Wilkins what his position is on the idea of ​​spiritual jazz, a genre now linked to cosmic psychedelia. “I prefer the expression sacred music,” he says. “Like, John Coltrane had A Love Supreme, and Duke Ellington had Come Sunday. I wonder if maybe this is my sacred music period. Anyway, as the band members gradually drift apart of the band and embrace Wilkins’ idea of ​​the vessel with transcendent solos, his music still feels spirit-driven.

The 7th Hand is now available on Blue Note Records

James V. Hayes