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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins is a young Juilliard student making deep and meaningful strides in New York’s jazz community. Having already played at the Gallery twice this past weekend with Joel Ross’s ‘Good Vibes,’ Immanuel Wilkins returns this Wednesday, February 8th for a couple of sets of his original music. Wilkins has enlisted a multi-generational group of collaborators for the show, including pianist Shai Maestro, drummer Nasheet Waits, and bassist Daryl Johns—a quartet sure to lob a stratospheric and rhythmic punch. We caught up with Wilkins last week to discuss his development in the New York scene and his mentors, both in and outside of the classroom.

The Jazz Gallery: Tonight you’re playing at the Gallery with Joel Ross’s group. Does it feel unusual to be the only wind player in a quintet?

Immanuel Wilkins: I think I’m used to it from playing with so many quartets. Most of my saxophone work has lead me to be comfortable as a single horn. The sax is suited well for it. I don’t really know why, actually, I have no clue [laughs]. But I love being the only horn in Joel’s band. Sax and vibes have such a great sound together, Joel and I are working to develop that more. It’s good to have someone on the front line with you, someone with the same vision who wants the same thing. Joel’s one of my closest friends, we’re over at each other’s crib every day. We’re not just developing the music, we’re developing as people, as humans. We moved to New York around the same time, so once we met, we hit it off in a really beautiful way.

TJG: What’s the rhythmic chemistry like between Joel and Jeremy Dutton?

IW: We’re all, in a way, students of the Steve Coleman method of learning and playing rhythm. Jeremy’s one of the only drummers I’ve consistently gotten lost with [laughs]. I think Joel, too, is very rhythmically solid. That’s one of the main goals of the group, to be rhythmically sound, to dig inside of the tunes.

TJG: How does that come from Steve Coleman, specifically?

IW: We’ve all gotten to work with Steve at some point in our lives. He’s kind of trained us. In Philadelphia I went to the Kimmel Center program throughout my younger years. The director there was Anthony Tidd, Steve’s bass player. Basically he took us though the ranks, showed us all the stuff. Steve lives in Allentown, and he would come down periodically, show us the vibe, teach us some tunes. So in my formative years of playing, I was learning how to play over really hard stuff, learning how to deal with complex rhythms. The same goes with Joel and Jeremy, and Ben [Tiberio] too. They were all at Banff with Steve, got to work closely with him.

TJG: Speaking of rhythmic players, I’m thinking about Shai Maestro, who you’re bringing into your own group on the 8th. Have you known Shai a long time?

IW: Not a long time. He’s been someone I always wanted to hear play my music. The first hit we had together was with Noam Wiesenberg at Cornelia Street Cafe. I’d always heard about him. Matter of fact, I talked to Joel and Ben about him and they said ‘Yeah, he’s one of our favorites.’ I played the gig with Shai and soon realized how great this man really is. For anybody that I hire, I’m basically looking for rhythmic intensity, melodic information, and strong emotional connection to the music. With Daryl [Johns] too, he brings so much feeling and connection when he’s playing. It eventually becomes about preference, but first, I look for strong emotional connection. That’s where my music comes from, and that’s what I look for first and foremost.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

In the Spring of 2016, vibraphonist Joel Ross kicked off the third edition of The Jazz Gallery’s Mentorship Series along with pianist-mentor Aaron Parks and a rotating cast of all-star rhythm sections. This weekend, Ross will return to the Gallery for two nights of performances as a leader in his own right. Along with talented peers like saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and drummer Jeremy Dutton, Ross will demonstrate his continuing development as an improviser and bandleader.

At the final performance of Ross’s mentorship experience at the club South in Philadelphia, Ross and Parks sat down with Jazz Speaks to discuss contemporary repertoire, working with such contrasting rhythm sections, and how to imbue their percussive instruments with the elusive sense of breath.

The Jazz Gallery: What was it like to work with such a range of rhythm section partners over these gigs? Like one night you’re playing with Ben Williams and Kendrick Scott, and then you’re playing with Thomas Morgan and Eric McPherson.

Joel Ross: It’s been an important learning experience in terms of getting to work with the different groups and the changes in the rhythm sections. From the beginning, we knew it was going to be different a couple of times, and then it ended up being different every time. I came in with the mindset to pay attention to that, but it still was something I had to adapt to.

Aaron Parks: The difference between gigs two and three was like “whoa!” They were just two days apart and pretty much the same repertoire, and felt incredibly differently.

TJG: How, specifically, did these changes affect your playing?

JR: I mean, I’m always listening, but from the very first downbeat with Thomas and Eric, it felt different. I had to almost take a minute to absorb what was happening and then respond. I think I was in a mindset based on what had happened before, and so I really had to take a minute and recalibrate.

AP: I’ve found that playing with Thomas Morgan in particular is always a new experience. I never know what to expect with him.

JR: Yeah.

AP: He’s such a unique musician and has his own idea of what the role of the bass is—it’s holding it down, but a very different sense of what holding it down means.

JR: For the previous two shows, I had an idea of what the players played like, but I had never heard Thomas before. At the soundcheck, everything seemed to go ok, but when the gig started… [laughs]. I didn’t quite know what to expect at a given moment, but it was really fun.

TJG: A lot of the tunes that you’ve been playing are by Aaron’s peers—things he learned when he was coming up as a pianist. Joel—were you familiar at all with the repertoire going into this experience?

JR: Almost everything was new to me. I knew a few of the tunes from listening, but I had never played any of them. I really like learning new music, so I was really into Aaron’s choices.

AP: Even before we got into the gigs, we were rummaging through some stacks of old music and  thought about what tunes would be challenging and have some juice, something to sink your teeth into, but also open enough to explore them with these different rhythm sections.

JR: Yeah, we spent a couple of hours doing that, and Aaron just kept finding more music!

AP: Because of the shifting rhythm section, we don’t much time for anything more involved than that. The repertoire wasn’t designed to push us or challenge us in a particular conceptual way. It was like, “Let’s just play some good songs!”

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