In a year when #blacklivesmatter became a significant global movement in the wake of the killing by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, newly emerging jazz artists have followed their more senior peers such as Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and his hard hitting protest song ‘Ku Klux Police Department’ with their own responses to racism against African-Americans in the United States. Some things tragically do not change and the struggle for the reform of the police in America certainly continues with significant change as far off as ever.
While alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins is not optimistic that the police will change their ways, the 23-year-old who sees himself as a ''radical abolitionist,'' speaks about a ''radical optimism'' more generally and traces jazz to the ''blues engrained in black culture'' and ''the birth of the blues through suffering on the plantations'' because ''things are bad but will be better.'' As a player who has performed with the Sun Ra Arkestra he sees Afrofuturism succinctly as ''People at large imagining a world that doesn't exist. A world beyond police systemic racism.''
Wilkins has had quite a year and made a splash with Omega released in the summer, up there with any of the top jazz releases of 2020, an album that references racist attacks on African-Americans in historical times and more recently at Ferguson when in 2014 teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer.
The Julliard-educated Wilkins who was mentored in New York by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire has spent Pandemic year so far, he tells marlbank on the phone from Philadelphia, ''back and forth'' to Philadelphia where his parents live. It was a time he says to ''hunker down and develop.''
''Everything's slower, the focus was more on developing. As soon as Lockdown came in March I got a really nice microphone and developed a home studio situation in Philly working on an album in post-modern classical composition recording from home.'' He says the new way of working has changed the way he writes. It ''used to be at the piano.''
Omega was produced by pianist Jason Moran who Wilkins had toured with in Europe and America on Moran's acclaimed ''In My Mind – Monk at Town Hall, 1959'' project. Omega is Wilkins' Blue Note debut. His other records include appearing on bassist Noam Wiesenberg's Roads Diverge two years ago; an appearance on vibist Joel Ross' KingMaker, and on the eclectic covers album Reworks Vol 1 for the Masterworks label when he was ''the youngest player in the room'' while still at Julliard playing on the record with the likes of pianist Sullivan Fortner, trumpeter Keyon Harrold and the Elvin Jones of our time, drummer Eric Harland. In Wilkins' band on Omega are pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Daryl Johns, and drummer Kweku Sumbry.
Highlights are numerous and include the bass grounded track 'The Dreamer' where there is a real subtlety in the group interplay, and then there is the compelling ballad 'Grace and Mercy'. On the scintillating 'Warriors' Wilkins simply burns. He has a delicately sinuous, expressive tone.
He says that his saxophone is a Selmer Mk VII and that saxophone became his first instrument when he took it to church as a young man and where he also played piano and later some organ. In church, he says, ''people learn to step up and the encouragement is perfect for multi-instrumentalists.'' An only child, Wilkins was raised in Upper Darby, not far from Philadelphia, ''10 minutes outside,'' he explains. His dad ''used to play trombone'' and his mum was ''a dancer who stopped before I was born.''
As a young man Wilkins was influenced by Kenny Garrett and Wilkins' dad used to drive him to neighbouring places in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to hear the great ex-Miles Davis musician and saxophone icon play. ''I don't know if he'd remember me but I met him about five or six times!'' Wilkins enthuses about Kenny's time with Miles especially on a performance of 'Human Nature' when the microphone breaks and Miles beckons Garrett over to him. Wilkins played locally in Philadelphia beyond church in clubs like the historic Clef and he significantly became a player as mentioned earlier in the Sun Ra Arkestra.
''Marshall Allen told me to play like yourself,'' he says of the leader of the Arkestra. Wilkins found the experience ''really fostering'' and compares the work of the Arkestra in Philly to that of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in Chicago. In Philly back then Wilkins used to also play in Chris' Jazz Cafe and also at the Kimmel Center where he was encouraged by, among others, Anthony Tidd, the Londoner famed for his work in the 1990s with the cult band Quite Sane and more recently Steve Coleman. The saxist says: ''Quite Sane are one of my favourite groups!''
From Philadelphia to the world Immanuel Wilkins is a new icon of the music. Now's the time and that time is also, it's clear, a new future. Photo: immanuelwilkins.com