Album reviews

Immanuel Wilkins – ‘The 7th Hand’

Immanuel Wilkins – The 7th Hand
(Blue Note. Album review by John Bungey)

The much-admired young American alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins already fronts a fine quartet. But his second album poses the question: what would we sound like if God was in the band?

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OK, that’s a mildly flippant way of putting it (they’d certainly draw the crowds at the Village Vanguard), but The 7th Hand comes steeped in religious symbolism. If the number six represents the limits of human possibility, Wilkins wonders how it would sound to seek divine intervention and allow that seventh element to possess his quartet.

With or without a celestial co-pilot, Wilkins’s career has blossomed. The saxophonist’s Blue Note debut, the powerful, emotionally charged Omega (*) , became The New York Times’s favourite jazz album of 2020. Its centrepiece was a four-part suite that showed Wilkins’s ambitious long-form compositional skills.

The 24-year-old’s second album goes further – it’s a seven-part work that climaxes in a near half-hour group improvisation. “It’s the idea of being a conduit for the music as a higher power that actually influences what we’re playing,” Wilkins says.

The saxophonist is joined by his regular group, Micah Thomas on piano, Daryl Johns on bass, and Kweku Sumbry on drums, plus guest appearances from flautist Elena Pinderhughes and the Farafina Kan Percussion Ensemble.

The opening Emanation sets out their stall – contemporary mainstream acoustic jazz played with intricate flair and huge energy. Wilkins’s saxophone is a tumbling, melodically driven stream of ideas, Thomas’s piano is questing, exploratory, a little more measured. They segue into Don’t Break with the African rhythms of the percussion ensemble complementing the band’s chant-like motifs.

The record’s more reflective middle section starts with the lovely Fugitive Ritual, Selah, with its bluesy lilt and smoky sax. Shadow gently builds over walking bass; Witness features plaintive flute. Wilkins’s alto then sets sparks flying again on Lighthouse amid fizzing cymbals and restless drumming. It’s a magnificently assured performance from this young group. The piece slows to a close amid flurries of percussion, gospel-ish piano and elegiac saxophone – a little reminiscent of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. So far, so special.

There are more echoes of Coltrane in the closing 26-minute Lift but this time it is the free jazz fervour of his final years. The quartet tear up the map and head off in search of transcendence à la Coltrane. How you respond to the sonic fireworks of this closing exhortation will depend on your appetite for free jazz generally. If you’re young and open-eared you may well be thrilled, if you’re old and have spent too much time listening to Art Ensemble of Chicago bootlegs like me, maybe not so much. Anyway, six great tracks out of seven is a pretty good hit rate.

The 7th Hand is released on 28 January 2022.

LINK: Immanuel Wilkins on Blue Note
(*) Review of Omega by Adam Sieff

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