This Saturday, March 31, alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins returns to The Jazz Gallery with his working quartet. While still a student at Juilliard, Wilkins has established himself as an in-demand sideman and burgeoning bandleader. In 2018 alone, Wilkins has gotten the call from such luminaries as Jason Moran, Gerald Clayton, E.J. Strickland, David Weiss, and Ben Wolfe.
For the Gallery show this weekend, Wilkins and company will be playing a mix of old and new tunes, including new settings of poetry featuring vocalist Alyssa McDoom. We caught up with Wilkins for a wide-ranging conversation about his music as a religious outlet, the sources of his saxophone sound, and his noted fashion sense.
The Jazz Gallery: So who’s in this iteration of the band?
Immanuel Wilkins: Micah Thomas, Kweku Sumbry, Daryl Johns, and Alyssa McDoom will be singing on some tunes. Those were the musicians this concept was built around.
TJG: What was the concept? I feel like I hear a lot of open gospel-like voicings in your music?
IW: Yeah, I played piano in church up until I moved to New York, and I usually compose on the piano. The idea was to write modern day hymns—music that is influenced by my upbringing. But the general sound that you’re referring to almost came about by accident. I didn’t necessarily try to do it. It was just what was on my fingers at the time. I wanted a band that understood my vision of what the music was and I also wanted individual voices that would be able to bring it beyond what I had had in mind.
For the first couple of years being here I was just searching to find the closest I could get to my vision. But when I found it I knew it. It was then time to move forward.
TJG: How did you go about picking your bandmates? I don’t necessarily imagine all of them as the religious type.
IW: (Laughs) Believe it or not, Micah’s dad’s a pastor. Micah has actually become one of my closest friends—we’ve really been able to hold each other up as far as spirituality and just dealing with the music school experience.
TJG: Are you still a church regular these days?
IW: I’m trying to find a church but I want something that’s real. I just haven’t really found that yet.
TJG: Is part of the missing connection the fact that you’re not playing?
IW: It’s partly that, but I’m also trying to make it a point not to play now, and actually go and be on the receiving side only instead of the giving and receiving side. I want to just be there.
TJG: Outside of Church, when you’re playing with your band, would you call that a “religious experience?”
IW: Definitely, yeah. I want it to be religious for everybody hearing it and I hope that comes across. I want my music to be so undeniably what it is that it just draws cats in. That’s also why I love playing in a band so much, especially playing in my band; I’m trying to write music that facilitates a space for us to be religious vessels for the music—have us actually act as vessels for Jesus. And as we build, I feel us getting closer to that role.
TJG: How does it work when you play sideman gigs—when you play with musicians who may not necessarily be religious?
IW: This is my personal pursuit, and I’m leaving it at the doorstep of whoever I’m playing with. If it affects you then you can dive into what I’m doing, or say “No, that’s not for me. Let me find my own path.” But this is my thing. This works for me. If my playing touches you in a way that makes you think, “That’s the way,” then you’re welcome to come on in.
TJG: What are you thinking about when you’re soloing? Are you thinking?
IW: No, but I’m really aware. That’s one of the things I pride myself on. I’m really aware of what’s happening all around the band. That’s allowed me to be a better sideman and better musician in general. It takes a certain musical vulnerability to do that—I try to listen a lot and then add my own language based on that context.
TJG: The language you add in a musical context seems to be very different than in an everyday context. When speaking, you come across as laid back and really nice, but your playing almost reminds me of an exorcism (laughing). Occasionally I’ll even catch you yelling between notes. When I asked you why that is previously, Micah jumped in and joked that you’re “repressed.” What do you think is going on?
IW: Ha, people have told me about the yelling thing and so I’ve listened back, and yeah, I’m actually screaming (laughs). I think it all goes back to spirituality. I’m not repressed, but that is pretty funny that Micah called me that. I think I’m just private day-to-day and about my spiritual walk. I don’t talk about it much, but music is my outlet for that kind of stuff to come out. I’m not coming from an angry place, but I am trying to get a lot out all at once. The screaming comes from me losing my meditative train of thought. Going back to the vessel thing, I don’t want to get in the way of whatever I’m channeling. Once my mind gets in the way of what’s happening, that’s when the screams happen. The goal is to get to a place where I’m so focused that I’m almost out-of-body.
TJG: How do you feel after a solo?
IW: Drained, especially if it’s intense—if it’s really in there. After gigs I usually go straight to the back and try to just relax for a few minutes. I like talking to people after the gig, but I usually need a few minutes to just sit down and have a glass of water. That’s actually something I’m trying to work on—developing more physical stamina and pacing myself better.
TJG: Putting yourself in the shoes of a listener, how do you think your solos come across? There are a lot of screaming high notes in your music. What do those signify?
IW: I don’t know. The beauty of it is it means something to me that I can’t put into words, and it means something to you that you can’t put into words. As a listener, you either enjoy that a lot, or you don’t enjoy that at all—and that’s great. That’s what I want. I want people to say, “Man, I loved that. Or man, I hated that.”
TJG: Why are you so open to the second response?
IW: I want people to have opinions. I want my music to be unapologetically, undeniably what it is. Not everyone likes everything. I don’t want to please everybody. I was on a gig once and someone said to me, “Next set, let’s play less intense,” alluding to my high notes. In the next set, I don’t think I’ve ever played more high notes. It was the most intense I’ve ever played.
TJG: Oh, you turned it back on them?! Do you do it out of spite?
IW: No. Well, kinda. My thinking is moreso that I’m not here to fulfill a role. I’m an artist. You hired me because you like how I play. If you don’t like that then you should call someone else. And I want my music to be just like that. If it’s not your cup of tea, then cool, I respect you for that.
TJG: So hating or loving your music means you put something distinct out there.
IW: Yeah, it’s just real. I’d hate to try to please everybody and come out with something that’s not what I really want. Let me do what I’m feeling, and then people can choose what they want, and that’s good. Make choices.
TJG: Will you be bringing new music to this gig?
IW: Yeah, it’ll be half new, half old. Alyssa’s singing with us on a couple of things.
TJG: Is writing for a singer a new thing?
IW: I actually did that on my first Jazz Gallery gig, but not much since. For this one, I’ve put lyrics to some old ones which we usually do as quartet.
TJG: Are there any new vocal compositions?
IW: Recently, I’ve been writing music to poetry—using the words in the poem as the lyrics for the music.
TJG: Who are you setting?
IW: James Weldon Johnson—a poem called “A Midday Dreamer.” I’ve been a fan of his for a while and I’ve been trying to write music to a bunch of his poems. Alyssa won’t be singing on that many tunes, but the ones she’s on have really great lyrics. We aren’t too used to playing with a vocalist, so we’ll definitely be working on playing with intensity at low volumes. Alyssa likes singing some of the tunes way slower than I originally conceived them. She and I were running through some of the tunes the other day and she was like, “I want to take this one at half speed” (laughs). It’s cool for me to add someone to the mix who sees things in a fresh, new light and it’s given me perspective on how I can play or re-orchestrate my music. She’s a really original voice, and has a really great musical approach. The tunes with her on it will be pretty spacious—pretty wavy compared to our usual sound.
TJG: Talking about some of your other bandmates and your band’s sound, in your last interview you spoke about playing with Jeremy Dutton, and on this gig you’re playing with Kweku Sumbry. Neither of those drummers necessarily plays in a way that the jazz layman can easily follow. Do you like to play with this type of drummer specifically?
IW: I love playing with that type of drummer. A lot of it is just that we’re all young—you don’t really hear old cats playing that way. They have more experience and they’ve also just calmed down a bit. At this stage in the game, all I’m really worried about is the band’s energy. We’re just a bunch of young people trying to hit. Once we get older, then we’ll tone it down…maybe. But I like it—right now, we’re all just young and wild. That’s what the band sounds like and I want it to be that way. I want it to be overwhelming.
TJG: On the topic of youth and spirit, let’s talk about your fashion. I heard that you won an award for the way you dress—how old are you again?
IW: I’m 20 (laughs). I was voted one of the “Top 50 Best Dressed Men in Philadelphia” when I was in my last year of high school. I think I was 17 or 18. That set me up with a couple of different situations where some people would hook me up with stuff when I would go on the road. I look at dressing well as investing in yourself. It’s not a thing of vanity, it’s not a façade.
TJG: How did it work for you early on? Were you already buying your own clothes when you were in Junior High?
IW: It started with Justin Faulkner, who plays drums with Branford [Marsalis]. He’s about 5 or 6 years older than me and he was kind of like my big bro. The first thing was cardigans. He started wearing them, and I was like, “Oh man, I need to get some cardigans,” and that was my introduction. Then it was slim-fit jeans, and Justin also put me on to a lot of style blogs. So I was checking a lot of those out.
TJG: Do you know the blog, “Street Etiquette?”
IW: Yeah, they’re great, they’re killing. Around that time I also discovered thrift stores, which was my intro into buying good quality clothes for a lot cheaper than what was on the blogs. I could get a quality blazer for $10. One of the great things about thrift stores other than price is that the clothing was just made better back then. Those garments have stood the test of time, so when you get them you know you’re wearing quality stuff. You can buy vintage Ralph Lauren or Versace for cheap, and you’re walking around looking like a “G” for not that much money. So I think that’s what helped developed my eye for style, because when you go into a vintage store you need to look through millions of pieces until you find that one thing that suits you. Now when I go there, it only takes me 15 minutes because my eye is accustomed to it. I can spot out a good piece like a needle in a haystack.
TJG: It’s interesting you talk about a “good” piece of clothing like it’s something objective. I imagine your definition of good music expands beyond jazz also. Who are you listening to these days that people might not expect?
IW: Hold on, let me check my hidden playlist (laughs)…I’m actually really into John Mayer. His guitar playing is really soulful. I feel like a lot of black culture is secretly really into him. White people always talk down on him. But all else considered, everyone’s checking out John Mayer, especially anyone who plays R&B guitar, just low key.
TJG: So is your fashion as specific as your music—are you going for a specific look, or do you want to just look “good?”
IW: I like what I like—I wear what I like and musically I play what I like, and eventually it manifests into a style or a personality. I definitely do have some style influences though. Lino Ieluzzi comes to mind—he’s one of the kingpins at Pitti Uomo, which is a big fashion trade show in Italy. Also the Ricci brothers—Nichola and Valentino. Miles, Ellington, Justin Faulkner, Etienne Charles—all those guys can really dress.
TJG: Let’s talk about some of your musical influences. I always joke that your name should be Branford Garrett. Your sound, especially on the high notes reminds me of Kenny [Garrett], and a lot of your compositions seem very similar to Branford’s.
IW: Yeah, Branford and Kenny are two of the living cats who really influenced my beginning stages. Kenny is really accessible and I think it’s good for cats who are just beginning to start with whoever they like—whoever sounds most appealing to them. Players they can relate to. For me, it was Kenny. After that, I was checking out Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Bird, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball…
TJG: How about Benny Carter?
IW: I discovered Benny Carter later, maybe during high school, but he changed my life. Benny and Ornette [Coleman] changed the game for me. For Benny, it was how I dealt with time. His time feel was just so in there. He’s so locked in and his lines were so deliberate. If you actually check out what he was playing back then—there’s a recording of him playing “Honeysuckle Rose” where he plays some of the craziest rhythms. It’s so unorthodox. Even now, cats aren’t playing that type of stuff.
And then Ornette, on the other side, was a big influence on how I sing through the horn. A lot of my sound I have to attribute to Ornette, and I came to Ornette through Branford. Someone once told me that Branford modeled his quartet after Ornette’s band and I think I’m partially doing the same—a lot of my rubato tunes are imitating Branford, who’s imitating Ornette and Keith Jarrett, who I also discovered through Branford.
TJG: How do you feel about your personal sound? Is that something you’re continuing to work on?
IW: I’m always trying to get a bigger sound. The guys in my rhythm section as a trio are getting such a big sound, and I don’t want to be in a situation where when I start playing, the sound doesn’t get any bigger. I have to at least be able to match them and carry the melody. I can’t go down on my own gig (laughs).
As far as tone, I’m always trying to sound more human. I want to sound like I’m talking. I think trumpet and trombone players can access it a little more than saxophonists, but yeah, I want to make my sound more malleable, so I can just do whatever I want to. I haven’t necessarily gotten to that yet.
TJG: Who’s a saxophone player who you think sounds really human?
IW: Ornette sounds very human. Then there’s Trane and Albert Ayler. Some people get to it in different ways. I think Johnny Hodges can sound human; Ben Webster too. But it’s far different from the way Ornette sounds human.
There’s beauty in all of the different approaches. I think if someone can access certain imperfections, it really distinguishes their sound and makes it more relatable for us as people. As audience members, we’re attracted to those who have the beauty and the ugly in their sound. And that’s what I’m trying to do with the music. It’s really beautiful at points but it’s also really ugly. If you think of Ornette, if you think of Trane, if you think of Ellington, Monk—anybody we love, they have that. They have those qualities where their music can be objectively really ugly, but also some of the most beautiful stuff.
Also, going from really ugly to beautiful instead of just playing pretty all the time enhances the beauty of the music. There’s tension and release.
The style is called sprezzatura—it means artful dishevelment. You’ll see people mess up their hair on purpose—the whole “messy hair look.” That’s “sprezz.” Looking like you just got out of bed, but in a cool way. Or you don’t have the top button on your collar buttoned up—you want to look nonchalant, but artfully. The idea is it looks great, but it’s not perfect. And that’s what we as a people are attracted to. We’re attracted to things that are “real.”
The Immanuel Wilkins Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, March 31, 2018. The group features Mr. Wilkins on alto saxophone, Micah Thomas on piano, Daryl Johns on bass, Kweku Sumbry on drums, and special guest Alyssa McDoom on vocals. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.