Immanuel Wilkins discusses his vital debut album Omega
On August 7th, the eminent young saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins released Omega, a debut record that’s inspiring, probing and self-assured all at once. Thick with vital wails, lullabies and whispers, his compositions rehash the moments of horror and grace that have become a “perpetual reality” for Black Americans, Wilkins says. Omega presents ten pieces that the alto saxophonist has written throughout the last seven years, all brought to life with astonishing musicality and courage.
Wilkins, who just turned 23, grew up in Upper Darby, PA, and since relocating to Manhattan in 2015 to attend The Julliard School, he has become one of the most admired composers and bandleaders in contemporary jazz. In 2017, he caught the attention of piano luminary Jason Moran, who invited him on tour and eventually agreed to produce an album for Wilkins’ redoubtable quartet – with Kweku Sumbry on drums, Micah Thomas on piano and Daryl Johns on bass, all bandmates of several years. As in their live shows, these four young musicians’ technical mastery, collective chemistry, and lyrical imagination all shine like fire on their first full-length recording together.
Wilkins describes Omega as an attempt to translate Black aesthetics and spiritual reflections into sound, which he says requires blending the sublime with the grotesque. On two pieces both subtitled “An American Tradition,” grisly improvisations evoke the scenes of historic lynchings, while the captivating gospel-inspired meditations like “The Dreamer” and “Part 1. The Key” approach a quiet heaven. The band’s heartfelt, challenging exploration into everyday spiritual contradictions, forever underpinned by Wilkins’ unflinching commitment to melody, makes Omega a record that Americans ought to live with for years to come.
Last week, I spoke with Wilkins over the phone about how he’s feeling now that the record is out, as well as his early experiences playing jazz in Philadelphia, his love for John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, how jazz musicians are contributing to a transformative cultural moment, and what he’s been working on since the lockdown began in March.
TK: When you were growing up playing around Philly, what were some locations and landmarks that were important in your musical life?
IW: One was the Clef Club, that was my earliest memories of playing the music; I started in school but shortly thereafter I got involved at the Clef Club. I was around a lot of great masters of the music that are still around and mentor young people, people like Marshall Allen, Mickey Roker. The Clef Club was super instrumental for me.
And the Coltrane House, I think there was just a certain mystical nature about the Coltrane House. I’ve never been in the house but I’ve spent a lot of time around it, whether that was in front of it looking at the marquee or going up to the windows and looking at the pictures of Trane, or it was playing across the street at the Coltrane Celebration, or sometimes the Clef Club would have an ensemble come and play outside across the street. So I just had an interesting relationship with the Coltrane House, because it never really gave me the answers that I was looking for from it; it existed in a mythical, mystical way for me. Also Mr. [Lovett] Hines at the Clef Club, he introduced me to Cousin Mary late in her life, and at the end of her life she couldn’t talk, so it was another layer of mysticism – I would go be by her bedside and she would just kind of look at me intently, we would talk to her and she couldn’t really communicate back. So just a lot of things surrounding the Coltrane family, all those things kind of left me with questions, but also spiritually it definitely gave me some energy. So that was a special place for me.
And one more, maybe my church. I go to Prayer Chapel Church of God in Christ; I’ve been going there for a long time. And I play piano at church, and that’s super instrumental in my compositional process. I write at the piano, so naturally anything I write – things I play in church are kind of under my fingers, so that kind of musical vernacular comes out because I write that way.
TK: Who are the other musicians from the past and present – you mentioned John Coltrane already – who you feel the strongest stylistic connection to, and who have a strong influence on your sound?
IW: Yeah, definitely Trane. That goes without saying, probably. But also, I’d say my introduction to the music in general was Kenny Garrett – I think for most alto players that’s kind of a stepping stone that we all go through, all modern alto players nowadays. But shortly thereafter I got really interest in Betty Carter’s music, Ben Webster, Lester Young, so those people were really influential to me early on.
And then once I really started developing my own thing, my own sound, once I moved to New York, Wynton Marsalis told me, “Man, you need to get a crying sound. You need to develop a cry, so you need to check out Ornette Coleman.” He gave me this record of Ornette Coleman live at [Town Hall, 1962], and he said to transcribe this tune called “Sadness” on it. And it’s this tune of Ornette’s that he’s playing with some strings in it, and it’s one of the most beautiful dissertations on how to emote depth of feeling in your sound. So I transcribed that, I tried to get it just like Ornette, and thereafter Ornette became kind of like the one for me, I wanted to base everything I was doing off of Ornette.
That’s also around the time that I realized that everything was kind of coming out of Bird. You know, any saxophone player, it’s all kind of direct. You can trace it all back to Charlie Parker. And I was also studying with Kenny Washington at the time, who was super into bebop, super hard-headed about making sure you understand bebop, you understand bebop phrasing and rhythm. And so Charlie Parker’s vocabulary became an integral part of my playing for that reason.
TK: When you were growing up here, were you thinking a lot about Philly players specifically?
IW: Yes and no – I think that in the sound of Philadelphia, a big part of what I’ve seen growing up on the scene was the influence of John Coltrane’s music. You know, you would go to jam sessions and people would call songs like “Resolution” or “My Favorite Things” or “Afro Blue,” and you would play these modal tunes for thirty minutes or forty minutes. So John Coltrane had a supreme impact on the Philadelphia music culture in general in that way, and it tied into also what I was working through in church, it was always this pursuit of searching for something higher. You were always in pursuit of something higher in the music. If you’re playing “Afro Blue” at the jam session, you don’t feel like you’ve fulfilled the mission unless you really reach that point. And you know what that point is once you get there. Whoever it was – we’re talking jam sessions, were talking a random group of people playing together – it was always this shared mission of, we’re searching for the next level, the next tier of what musical consciousness looks like. I think that’s the influence of Coltrane. And McCoy [Tyner]. You know, Philadelphia.
TK: What were the experiences that inspired you to write the compositions on your new album Omega?
IW: I started writing some of the music in high school – the oldest tune on the record is probably from 2013, so from 2013 through 2019 I was writing music for the album. Basically we picked the best songs out of our repertoire, and we had kind of figured an order over the three years that we had been playing as a band together.
I’d say that generally most of my tunes are centered around Black aesthetics. It’s really in the intersection between Black aesthetics and my spiritual beliefs. And so for me, I wanted to create a body of work that dealt with what being Black may sound like. And so what I was interested in was this idea of how as Black people we’re dealing with the sublime on one level, like very beautiful things, like hilarious stuff, and then also super horrific stuff, super grotesque material. I guess a couple good representations of this are Dave Chappelle or Black Twitter, things of that nature. So if there was a way to look at what Blackness looks like – like if you take black and white and put those filters on something you get a grayscale. I was trying to create the grayscale of what my experience was. And so I tried to play super sublime, super nostalgic, beautiful material directly up against super grotesque-sounding material, horrific-sounding material. And then not only doing it song by song, but then also maybe intra-song. Intra-song-ily. [laughs] You know?
TK: Two of the pieces named after historic killings use the phrase “An American Tradition” in their titles. What is the American tradition that you want to call attention to?
IW: The Ferguson tune, that’s based off of, obviously, the killing of Michael Brown in 2014. That happened around my birthday, so that definitely was a pivotal one for me. And basically, what I was thinking about was how these present-day lynchings – if you want to use that word – or these present-day killings of Black folks, what it does is it sparks generational trauma. And so I wanted to find links to the past in terms of how this has been going on for a long time and how it creates ancestral memory in that way. And we can use ancestral memory and how there’s negative DNA in that and there’s also super positive DNA in that. So “An American Tradition” was alluding to the fact that this has been going on for centuries and seems to be ingrained in America’s DNA.
TK: In a press release, you explain that the death of Michael Brown in 2014 is an event that most Americans know about, but the death of Mary Turner in 1918 is much less known and most children don’t learn about her in schools today. How did you come across Turner’s story, and what made you want to include her on the album?
IW: I think I was doing some research on lynchings. What was the nature of them, how they happened, what drove people to get lynched, checking out the history of what that was. There were about thirteen or fifteen of them that happened in that same time frame of 1918. The reason why I picked it was that same idea that I was just touching on, was that ancestral, generational trauma. Even most Black people don’t know about this story, but somehow that severity of trauma gets re-sparked when we see a Michael Brown or a Tamir Rice or Ahmaud Arbery. When you see that stuff happen, that kind of spike in our system gets re-hashed, even though you don’t really know all the stories. When you see a present-day killing, it doesn’t feel like, “Man, this is happening now.” It’s like, “Man this is always happening. This has always been a thing.” I think, even though we don’t know Mary Turner’s story, we feel that trauma.
TK: You dedicated “The Dreamer” to James Weldon Johnson, who was a poet, a writer and an executive secretary of the NAACP. Can you describe how Johnson inspired you and how you put together this composition?
IW: This one’s actually based on a poem of his called “A Midday Dreamer.” To be honest with you, I was trying to learn how to write lyrics. What I was doing was I was taking was taking poems and kind of reverse-engineering them and writing music to the poems and making the stanzas my lyrics, so the first few stanzas of that poem are just the melody to “The Dreamer.” That’s definitely a great example of the most sublime writing I could possibly create. And if you read the poem it’s also kind of in that realm, it’s very mystical, it’s nostalgic, and then also kind of otherworldly. It talks about “fairy palaces of gold.” This cat’s in a boat rowing down the stream, you know, just very sublime and also otherworldly in a way. I wanted to capture that energy of what a dreamscape is.
TK: After all the transformative events that have happened in 2020 so far, both the tragic and the inspiring, do the compositions feel different to you now?
IW: I don’t know, I don’t think so. They feel pretty much the same to me, and I think it’s because – and I say this often when people ask me how I’m feeling during all the rioting and everything that’s going on in the news. I feel like as Black folks – I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I feel like the general consensus is that this is our perpetual reality and we’re dealing with this on a certain level continuously throughout our life. So this time in particular doesn’t really feel – other than all of the outright protesting and the fact that we have cameras to document what’s going on. It’s just uncovering what’s been happening. The tunes really feel the same to me, and the experience also feels the same in a way. It doesn’t feel different to us, although for other people it’s sometimes like, “Oh man, yeah we should do something about this.” And I think it’s because we have some sort of visual representation of what’s going on. And then we also have people going out into the streets. But yeah, I think it feels generally the same to me. But also, I don’t know – I have a really intense emotional connection with my music at first, and then it kind of goes away and I begin to look at it more objectively over time.
TK: How would you describe the way the pandemic has affected the artists and musicians in Harlem and in Philly? And what do you think the lockdown has taught the New York and Philly music communities?
IW: For cats in New York, I’m seeing a lot of – man, cats are making it work. People are doing outdoor gigs in really cool ways. And also you’ve got people like Russell Hall or Giveton Gelin or Jon Batiste who are also playingattheprotests – Marcus Gilmore – these cats are playing at protest gatherings. So in New York specifically, I think it’s really cool how the art scene is still just bringing the music to the people in that way, I think it’s special. And yeah, I think all over, artists in weird times always will find a way. Any time with real turmoil, artists always find a way to comment on what’s going on regardless; I think this is when we thrive as artists. So I don’t think this necessarily has a negative effect on creative people as much as it is just a new set of parameters in terms of what people need to do.
I try to be optimistic about it. [laughs] With that being said, obviously, also we don’t have any gigs. [laughs]
TK: Can you talk about any other projects you’ve been working on since you finished the album, and any future projects that you’ve got coming up, virtual or otherwise?
IW: Yeah, I have a lot of commission work that I’ve been working on, developing during quarantine. I haven’t been really creative while I’ve been quarantined, I just haven’t really had that much creativity in terms of my writing. Practiced a lot of things, and that’s been cool; it’s been fruitful. But in terms of writing, I haven’t really been able to find any sort of rhythm. So basically what I’ve been trying to do is really work on developing what I have, and there’s a lot of stuff that got cancelled due to COVID-19 so I’m able to think about those things a little more. One thing is, the quartet’s working with a dance company, one of my favorite choreographers Sidra Bell and her company Sidra Bell Dance New York, we’re gonna be doing a collaboration for The Jazz Gallery commission, coming up to-be-determined, [laughs] I don’t know when. But I think we’re going to be doing a work-in-progress coming up in December, I don’t know if I can speak on that yet, but there will be something soon. And then a couple other projects I’m kind of in the waiting for. I have a lot of music written; you know, I have about three or four records kinda ready to go after this one. Like I have to be prepared, with nothing for a while. So we’re ready to get back in the studio and ready to do more big projects.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Find The Key’s review of Immanuel Wilkins’ debut single “Warriors” here. Omega came out August 7th on Blue Note Records.