Immanuel Wilkins
Photo: Courtesy of Blue Note Records

Immanuel Wilkins’ Second Blue Note Release Is the Real “Spiritual Jazz”

Rising star alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins pushes into revelation with his quartet and guests, making modern jazz at a peak of drama on The 7th Hand.

The 7th Hand
Immanuel Wilkins
Blue Note
28 January 2022

Immanuel Wilkins plays the saxophone with a gorgeous tone and phrasing. He has a quartet willing to push him and follow him, galloping into the musical adventure. He has a compositional direction grounded in history and is ready to shine a light into the unknown. Wilkins’ new recording, The 7th Hand, just his second—both for Blue Note at the tender age of 24—is a gorgeous achievement. It highlights the dazzling chemistry of his working quartet while inviting in some guests who supplement the project rather than distracting from the center.

Wilkins’ impulse is to bring 21st-century creative music forward and reclaim the beating heart of its past without sounding retrospective. That’s no mean feat. He is not the first musician whose art does this, but he seems to be naturally adept at putting real heart into the New Jazz, giving it emotional depth as much as historical awareness. Wilkins strives for a high degree of integration across styles and manners in this session. Part of how he does this is by running many together as seamless, single flows of sound. But, more importantly, his conceptual approach and the sound of his instrument both intentionally blur lines.

As a saxophonist, Wilkins is beyond any obvious influence. His sound is most often silky and lush, but he can shift into a grittier gospel gear or an airier whisper as the art requires. In his New York Times review, Giovanni Russonello quoted saxophonist J.D. Allen as hearing a good bit of James Spaulding in Wilkins sound. They correctly noted that Spaulding played both hip, mainstream sessions, and more adventurous music—a superb analog for Wilkins’ approach. I would add that Wilkins also evokes Steve Coleman and Steve Lehman. He plays cleanly and precisely as part of the ensemble but then tends to push out into a cycling style of improvisation that uses bebop’s jagged rhythmic phrasing with hints of funk saxophone (Kenny Garret and, more oddly, Maceo Parker sits there in the background of Wilkins’ sound) and also the mechanically irregular rat-a-tat of hip-hop.

You can hear all of this on “Witness/Lighthouse/Lift” a played-through trio of performances featuring flutist Elena Pinderhughes. At first, the flute takes the lead with saxophone in perfect lockstep with the rhythm section, but Wilkins breaks into an exuberant improvisation in the second portion. That solo, however powerful it may be, expresses the type of precise, iterative improvising that Coleman has pioneered—not so much an improvised melody over a set of chord changes that provide a roadmap of structure but a cell-like spinning. This improvisation swirls outward through looped variation.

What makes Wilkins so unique, however, comes through even more clearly as a third, seamlessly connected section of this performance shifts to an entirely different kind of improvisation. “Lift” is a fully improvised half-hour for the quartet that draws not from James Spaulding or Steve Coleman but the traditions of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Cecil Taylor. The fashion now seems to refer to this as “spiritual jazz”, though I’m not that word gets at the essence here. Wilkins and his rhythm section move freely around and against each other, not hewing to one key or tempo, generating energy that might be better described as searching. The quest may be a “lift” of openness at the end of a program that has been moving toward a letting out.

Before this concluding trio of linked songs, the quartet assays something closer to gospel spirituality on “Fugitive Ritual, Selah”. This is not an open wound, upward-crying “spiritual jazz” but a soulful, mournful incantation that tugs at the heart and suggests meditation. There is relatively less improvisation here, free or otherwise, but instead, a restraint that makes emotion that much stronger. A couple of more conventionally modern tunes with complex structures surge with New Jazz power. “Don’t Break” brings in the Farafina Kan Percussion Ensemble without straining the quartet’s identity at all—all the interlocking parts of the composition sound connected and whole.

While no song on The 7th Hand is dominated by a conventional walking “swing” groove, there are often spots where that staple of “jazz” shoots a rubbery life in the band: the lovely, ballad-ish “Shadow” uses a modified ballad swing, portions of Wilkins’ solo on “Lighthouse” include a furious walking bass from Daryl Johns, and Micah Thomas’s riveting “Emanation” solo is so limber and free that it slips into and out of swing in natural, glorious bursts. This is just another way Wilkins’ remarkable quartet can link the most modern jazz with the heart of ancestors—and in a manner that is the opposite of contrived.

“Shadow” and the opening track, “Emanation”, are particularly strong moments for pianist Micah Thomas. He plays these melodies together with Wilkins, making the band always sound like more than a “horn plus rhythm section” outfit, and his command of the feel of each composition is exceptional. On “Shadow”, his gospel accompaniment pulses beneath the repeated melody as his quiet right-hand embellishments act like whiskers of light coming from a window.

On “Lift”, he thrives in freedom and demonstrates maximalist joy, both hands moving with power. Thomas plays with feel and sensitivity even when he is loud. His “Emanation” solo is a wide-ranging masterpiece. He moves across Kweku Sumbry’s clattering, Elvin-Jones-ish drum groove with independence, building expanses of melody with his right hand while also in dialog with drums and bass with his left hand. Thomas is as good a pianist as the music has today. Here’s hoping that his next recording as a leader is in the works.

In the meantime, The 7th Hand is a brilliant calling card for both Thomas and the leader. Immanuel Wilkins, quietly and without exaggeration, is the future of creative music. And, happily, the past as well.

RATING 8 / 10