Immanuel Wilkins is a 22-year-old alto saxophonist and Julliard graduate from greater Philadelphia who came to the attention of most with his impressive playing on Joel Ross’ outstanding 2019 Blue Note debut Kingfisher. Now with Omega Wilkins makes his own Blue Note debut as leader. Wilkins is not only an astute student of jazz tradition: he knows Black history in America and intently spiritually messages the pain of that experience on many of his compositions herein. The album is produced by his mentor, Jason Moran, and features Wilkins’ quartet of pianist Micah Thomas, upright bassist Daryl Johns and drummer Kweku Sumbry.
Wilkins is deeply Christian as well which fuels the spiritual nature of his music yet he’s as fiery as any alto saxophonist that comes to mind including the likes of giants like Sonny Simmons, Arthur Blythe, Gary Bartz and other elders that likely influenced his aggressive sound, even to some extent his major saxophone inspirer Kenny Garrett. The album opens with one of his brightest compositions, “Warriors” which Wilkins say is about friendships, family, your hood and your community – “serving as warriors for whatever we believe in.”
The first half of the album deals with Black experience directly, first with “Ferguson – An American Tradition” which captures the pulse of the community in 2014 when Mike Brown Jr., an unarmed teenager was shot and killed by a police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO. Wilson wasn’t indicted, fueling the rage of the community. Wilkins tells the story in reverse with the elegiac moments preceding the riotous atmosphere that followed the initial gunshots. The piece becomes more intense as it unfolds with the dialogue of piano and percussion meant to orchestrate a revolution, perhaps the kind we’ve seen in recent protests and the prominence of the BLM movement following the brutal killings by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, all three also unarmed Black people.
Commemorating that relatively recent tragedy is amplified two tracks later with “Mary Turner – An American Tradition.” This is Wilkins deeply conveying the pain as he bases his piece on Mary Turner, a Black woman who was eight months pregnant when killed by a lynching mob in Georgia in 1918, after she publicly decried her husband’s murder by the same means. It hurts to write these words, but they, like many incidents of Blacks suffering at the hands of white are sadly historical. The mob hanged her upside down, burned her, then cut out her baby and stomped on the unborn child. The first part of the piece depicts Turner’s attempt to flee, before the second half explodes with his wailing sax, intense piano chords, and stormy drum fills. Although Wilkins and Thomas are fans of horror movies, they never conceived creating audible horror as brilliantly as they do here.
In between those two compositions, we have “The Dreamer,” a more reflective take meant to honor the life of Black author, teacher and activist James Weldon Johnson, the first executive secretary of the NAACP. “Grace and Mercy” follows in a similar vein with Wilkins and Thomas in tandem on the melody and impressive skittering drums from Sumbry before Wilkins steps forth with a lyrical solo buttressed by the rhythm section.
The centerpiece of the album lies in the four-part suite that Wilkins composed in 2013 while studying at Julliard – first the contemplative “The Key,” followed by the obtuse, meandering “Saudade” with solos from each member and Wilkins’ exceptional alto bringing the piece to a stunning climax. “Eulogy,” begins melodically with a smooth transition into Sumbry’s solo before Wilkins and Thomas reprise the theme, imbued by Thomas’ sparkling runs and eventual solo before Wilkins takes an aggressive flight. “Guarded Heart” begins with drum rolls before Wilkins leads with a spirited theme which draws in the rest of the quartet as it morphs into improvisation, with Wilkins in his most explosive mode on the disc before the suite concludes calmly. Together the four pieces comprise a 20-plus minute journey through spiritual, lyrical and edgy tones that characterize the album. The closer is the title track, perhaps the most spiritual piece of all, echoing Coltrane in its opening before engaging in some complex rhythmic patterns, again reflecting the mastery of his rhythm section, especially Thomas on piano.
These young cats are the future of jazz. They are obviously deeply disturbed by the killings of unarmed Blacks but are likely also taking some measure of comfort in the protests and blossoming of the BLA movement. It’s often been said that jazz more than any genre reflects the history of its time. We certainly saw that in the ‘60s and at other eventful periods. it’s reassuring to see these gifted artists picking up that mantle. The forthrightness and utter command displayed by Wilkins and his quartet is stunning. This is more than an impressive debut: it deserves consideration for one of the year’s best.