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.