Immanuel Wilkins – Omega
(Blue Note 0894797. CD review by Adam Sieff)
Blue Note Records under the leadership of Don Was has developed and nurtured a powerful frontline artist roster and been quick to spot some of the finest emerging jazz talent. Now added to that list is Immanuel Wilkins, a 22 year-old alto saxophonist and composer whose debut album about the Black experience in the United States demands attention.
Wilkins hails from the outskirts of Philadelphia and moved to New York seven years ago to attend Juilliard School, during which time some of the repertoire for this album was written. He has already established himself as an in-demand sideman, toured with Jason Moran and last year made a major contribution to vibraphonist Joel Ross’ excellent ‘KingMaker’ album.
The musicians are Wilkins’ working quartet of pianist Micah Thomas, double bassist Daryl Johns and drummer Kweku Sumbry, exciting young players with whom Wilkins has built a deep rapport over the last few years. Jason Moran produced the album at Sear Sound Studios in New York.
Omega was recorded and prepared for release prior to the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent outpouring of feeling around the world, and yet the sequencing of the tracks makes for a particularly convincing and powerful exposition of the both the ugliness and beauty of the Black experience. The album opens with Warriors, a joyful song about “friendships, family, your hood, and your community”. The musicians are flying from the first beat, and Wilkins’ solo is as eloquent as it is intense. It’s a wonderful uplifting piece of music that doesn’t prepare you for the pain and confusion of Ferguson – An American Tradition, retelling the story – in reverse – of the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Mike Brown Jr by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The image created by the musicians is unsettling and graphic.
This is followed by The Dreamer, a short and very beautiful tribute to Black author and teacher James Weldon Johnson, with Wilkins’ alto providing a lyrical melody to Johnson’s poem ‘A Mid-Day Dreamer’. It’s only a temporary respite though, as next comes Mary Turner – An American Tradition, translating into a musical narrative the full horror of a pregnant Black woman being chased in Georgia by a white mob who hanged her upside down, burned her, and cut out and murdered her unborn child. Wilkins said: “Me and Micah Thomas, we watch horror movies. But what does it sound like to create an audible version of horror?” They’ve succeeded, as the agony and horror they convey feel all too real.
The music then moves from the grotesque to the sublime on Grace and Mercy, an irresistibly catchy piece with a spacious Micah Thomas’ solo. This leads to the album’s centrepiece, a 20 minute suite in four parts: The Key, Saudade, Eulogy and Guarded Heart. After the emotional rollercoaster of the preceding tracks this feels like a spiritual and reverential oasis, the strong compositions signifying great dignity and beauty. The album closes with the title track Omega and its echoes of Coltrane, once again showing the sheer strength of the musicianship throughout the quartet.
This is an album of powerful and timely music performed by musicians of the very highest calibre that demands to be both heard and understood.
Omega was released on 7 August 2020