Jazz Album of the Week: Immanuel Wilkins Debuts as Leader with Stunning and Heart-Wrenching OMEGA

Sep 21, 2020

September 21, 2020. At just 23, alto saxophonist, Upper Darby native, and Clef Club alum Immanuel Wilkins has just released one of the most sophisticated and mature debut recordings in recent memory—on the immortal Blue Note record label, no less.

Omega is something to behold not just because of Wilkins’ surplus of musicality and technique, but because of his precocious sense of history and his acute sense of the role that sometimes only music and art can play in baring certain emotional truths that attend anguish and triumph.

At times, we get the bold and raw expressionism of pieces like “Ferguson” and “Mary Turner.” Both are subtitled “An American Tradition.” And both are musical interpretations of horrors visited upon Black communities in America. The former refers to the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, Jr., the young, unarmed Black man shot by police in Ferguson, Mo.; the latter refers to the 1918 lynching of a young Black woman in Georgia.

Mary Turner was eight months pregnant when she had the audacity to vocally protest the lynching of her husband. As punishment, a mob strung her up by her ankles and subjected her and her unborn baby to deaths so horrifying and brutal that they almost have to be rendered in the abstract, through art, to be understood at a certain, more visceral emotional level.

The most apt comparison may be to Picasso’s treatment of the Nazi bombing of Guernica.

Wilkins and pianist Micah Thomas wondered whether they could distill the essence of horror as effectively through music. I think we have our answer.

To call “Mary Turner,” a jazz tune is to miss the point; it’s narrative, with beats and plot points and movements. It does tragedy in a way that’s almost operatic. Wilkins’ alto cries—a manner of playing he internalized after, at Wynton Marsalis’ urging, he began listening to old Ornette Coleman albums.

There’s a low-level terror at first generated by Kweku Sumbry’s steady, almost chant-like beat that sets the heart racing. Wilkins’ wet, whispering, discordant phrases on alto soon join-in over top and gradually increase in volume and intensity until we know that Turner’s effort to flee the mob must’ve ended tragically. Wilkins’ alto strains like the metal hull of a ship sinking to depths and pressures it was not made to withstand.

Thomas adds circular dark and stormy trinkles and percussive chords of stabbing discordance until the brutal, murderous deed is done, at which point the tone shifts again.

Above the fray now, up at 30,000 feet, Wilkins playing seems to replay the entire nauseous chain of events but at something like warp speed, and with a sad sense of detachment, as though he were a larger-than-life being up in the sky looking down at all the misery we’re capable of inflicting and penning his sad soundtrack from a lonely but exalted perch.

Fear not, though, Omega is not all emotional evisceration. Viewed as a whole, the record is an emotional rollercoaster—purposefully so. One of Wilkins’ goals was to juxtapose the gut-wrenching with the sublime, the absolute depth of despair with the feelings of unalloyed joy that derive from love, friendship, nostalgia, music—humanity’s better angels, in other words.

The effect of such a stark dichotomy may be jarring, but it’s not employed for any kind of empty, gratuitous, emotionally manipulative effect. Rather, Wilkins says, this is the dichotomy that has defined so much of the Black experience in America, and, to be rendered in full, the sublime must take up residence next door to the grotesque. From Wilkins’ perspective, they are inextricable; two sides of the same coin.

Omega’s opener, “Warriors,” the first single from the album, is the other side of that coin. “It’s about family and friendships,” says Wilkins, “your hood, your community.” Perhaps the brightest composition on the album, “Warriors” is just as uplifting as the next tune, “Ferguson,” is a sobering gut punch.

One of Wilkins’ mentors, the drummer Kenny Washington who played with Dizzy Gillespie among so many others, made sure that he was just as steeped in the bebop phrasing, in Bird’s vocabulary, as in Ornette Coleman’s. Wilkins’ playing here proves that Washington’s lessons found a receptive student, though those lessons manifest themselves here within the context of a decidedly contemporary post-bop composition.

That’s why it’s fair to say that Wilkins’ sound is neither straight-ahead nor avant-garde. In being both, one might say it’s neither—or vice versa. Parker’s melodic ideas, the improvisational lightning, Wilkins’ has got them all, but he solos with that authoritative quality, that fire and astringency of someone like Gary Bartz.

That’s Wilkins’ Old Testament side.

But it’s his New Testament side that might be an even bigger part of his identity.

Outside of mentors like the Clef Club’s Lovett Hines, Sun Ra’s Marshall Allen, and venerable Ortlieb’s professor emeritus Mickey Roker, Wilkins has always derived much of what inspires him musically from church. He still plays piano for a congregation, claiming it not only enriches his soul but is invaluable to his compositional process.

“The Dreamer,” sandwiched between the two “American Tradition” tunes, and “Grace and Mercy,” the record’s second single, serve together as the musical embodiment of Wilkins’ testimony.

Intertwined with the album’s two most emotionally challenging pieces, these tunes are more than just palate cleansers; they are perspective recalibrators. It’s that whole purposefully constructed dichotomy again. Wilkins and producer Jason Moran (the terrific pianist, who is another of Wilkins’ closest mentors) take you high, low, reverential, nostalgic…. I’d let these guys program an hour of radio for me any time. What a ride!

And that’s to say almost nothing of the latter half of the album, 80% of which is composed of a four-part, 20-plus minute suite. Arguably the centerpiece of the entire session, the suite facilitates a return to equanimity after the intense sensory and emotional experience that is Omega’s first half. 

My favorite movement in the suite is “Part 2. Saudade,” which sounds like it might share some genetic material with “DGAF,” one of the more thrilling cuts from Joshua Redman’s Come What May (2019). Redman’s tune served as a showcase for Gregory Hutchinson, and “Part 2” does much the same here for drummer Kweku Sumbry.

But if the two tunes share genetic material, it’s Wilkins’ composition that is the evolutionary step forward. A gorgeous solo intermezzo from pianist Micah Thomas brings the temperature all the way down, paving the way for the most intense, soul-baring segment from Wilkins on the entire recording. Seriously, come for the first two-and-a-half minutes of this one, but stay for the last five; it’s where you’ll hear a new great one being born.