Lauded Saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins Challenges Convention On ‘The 7th Hand’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The young saxophonist and composer Immanuel Wilkins set a high bar from himself with his 2020 debut, Omega. Debuts from young artists rarely draw much attention but Wilkins benefits by being on the premiere Blue Note label. Nonetheless, his confidence, self-assuredness, intuitive understanding of the spiritual aspects of Black music, and his imaginative playing led to rave reviews from many outlets including this one and this writer, extending to the New York Times naming it the #1 Jazz Album of 2020. Omega introduced his quartet with Micah Thomas on piano, Daryl Johns on bass and Kwebu Sumbry on drums; the same unit that opened the Lawn Stage on Saturday for the 2021 Newport Jazz Festival, and the same unit that graces The 7th Hand. Flutist Elena Pinderhughes and the Farafina Kan Percussion Ensemble appear on select tracks.

Last year alone Wilkins proved to be a vital sideman as well, appearing on The Orrin Evans Quartet’s Magic Time, an album in the Glide 2021 Jazz 20. Wilkins also showed in these other Blue Note releases appearing in that same list as a Top 20 or Honorable Mention – Johnathan Blake’s Homeward Bound, James Francies’ Purest Form, Joel Ross’ Who Are You?

Some early reviews of The 7th Hand (withholding the outlet name) has already put Wilkins in the same conversation as altoists Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Eric Dolphy, and Jackie McLean. If one is going to that level of superlative status, why not add Kenny Garrett to that esteemed list? Now, with that out of the way, let’s move to the album. While we learned in his debut that the Philly-based artist is deeply Christian and well-versed in the Bible, he embraces Biblical symbolism even more deeply here. Even the title invokes symbolism, as the number 6 is supposed to represent the extent of human possibility. He’s posing the question of what divine intervention would mean in terms of a 7th element. “I wanted to remix the Southern Black baptism, and also provide critique on what is considered sanctified and who can be baptized?”

The concept for the album then explores the existential swath of presence and nothingness across an hour-long suite comprised of seven movements, each of which can stand alone as a separate piece as well. They are striving to get the point, by the seventh movement, where the music is entirely improvised collectively. As he says, “It’s the idea of being a conduit for the music as a higher power that actually influences what we’re playing.” In a real sense, this is not unlike Coltrane’s later spiritual period where he was constantly reaching for the divine muse.

The movements unfold, beginning with “Emanation,” as Wilkins’ bright, buoyant playing gives way to a shimmering turn from Thomas until the music seemingly ends in the middle of a vamp, one of several ways Wilkins and the quartet challenge convention. Yet, it’s a way of linking the movements together. Wilkins indicates that each movement is related to the next by a triplet meter, going down by a triplet to the fourth movement, then up by one to the fifth movement, up again to the sixth, and then to the seventh which is free, with just one note. “Emanation” flows seamlessly into “Don’t Break,” invoking Africa Diasporic spiritual practices through the drums and percussion as expressed by drummer Sumbry and the Farafina Kan Percussion Ensemble, who take it out. The energy dissipates for the spacious “Fugitive Ritual, Selah,” a hymn to Black spaces. “Selah” means to pause with one meaning being giving space for the Holy Spirit.’

One of these such places is the Black church, the image Wilkins clearly had in mind. He also wrote the piece giving bassist Johns an opportunity to be in the forefront. “Shadow” is the middle point, the lowest-metered piece and it’s modeled on Wayne Shorter’s “Fall” from the Miles Davis album, Nefertiti. It’s intentionally minimalist, with the melody often repeated in various improvised forms by both Wilkins and Thomas, as the bass-drum tandem provides sturdy but subtle support. 

Wilkins brings in flutist Pinderhughes for additional colors and texture in the next two movements, “Witness” and “Lighthouse.” The first piece sets an ethereal, heaven-like tone through her flute and Thomas’ mellotron. This is another symbolic Biblical convention – to add another one or two voices to the primary voice to invoke divine intervention. “Lighthouse,” then is the activation of the supreme power with Wilkins in rapid fire mode in a series of half notes, propelled by Sumbry’s feverish kit work until the mid-way point where Wilkins and Pinderhughes channel the melody together. Thomas, Pinderhughes, and then Wilkins make brief statements before the epic seventh movement “Lift” ensues with the core quartet. 

“Lift” extends for 26 minutes plus, in the vein of a long Coltrane Ascension-like piece, albeit with fewer instruments, it lies way out on the outer edges. Yes, as pointed out, this is improvised and explorative with the group is free expression mode. Wilkins uses every aspect of the saxophone to evoke screams and squawks while Johns liberally uses both bowed and plucked bass, with Thomas reaching inside the piano to draw out percussive effects. Some notes Wilkins reaches toward the end of this movement cut right to the bone. It’s by far the least accessible piece to the mainstream-oriented listener and even Wilkins confesses that listeners may not understand his stream of consciousness here. The explanation, if it makes it any clearer, is that the Pentecostal character of “Lift” practices radical empathy by speaking in tongues. Says Wilkins, “But those tongues send codes to the Creator. To the slave owner, Aunt Hester’s screams were just screams. But to the other slaves, those screams carried messages to flee, to sing, to run, to keep working – a host of things.” 

The 7th Hand reveals even more of Wilkins’ artistry, deeply embracing Black music, citing his elders, and in so doing, demonstrating a stronger commitment to the spiritual aspects of channeling improvisation through a higher power than heard on his first effort. He further cements his growing reputation as one of the strongest contemporary forces in this music.

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One Response

  1. I’d sum up this album by the saying: “It is more admired than enjoyed.” I found the listening quite excruciating. I know he has great talent, but I hope he records something more accessible in the future.

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