Immanuel Wilkins’ depth of sound has local roots. He began playing every Sunday at his family church in Philadelphia, admittedly long before he understood the significance of his hometown history. Today, the saxophone player and composer has stretched his artistry from Europe to Japan, and collaborated with bold, diverse voices including Jason Moran, Lalah Hathaway, Solange Knowles, Gerald Clayton and Bob Dylan, among many others.
In the spirit of collaboration and apprenticeship, The Jazz Gallery’s Mentorship Series has partnered Wilkins with prolific trumpet player and composer Jonathan Finlayson, who just released his latest record 3 Times Round (2018). And as Wilkins puts together his first album-length recording as a leader, he works to bring what he’s learned from past experiences into his current present, which happens to evolve with each new opportunity.
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve had the chance to work with many established artists from a cross section of generations. How have these experiences influenced your self-perception within the lineage of the music?
Immanuel Wilkins: The beginning, for me, was when I was still in Philadelphia. Probably when I was around 15 years old, I started playing with the Sun Ra Arkestra, with Marshall Allen and a lot of those people. And I didn’t realize it then—it look me leaving Philadelphia to realize I was blessed to have a bunch of experiences with true masters of the music, at an age where I wasn’t really ready for it. So I [started] from there. Mickey Roker was also in Philadelphia at the time; he was around, Bootsie Barnes—there was all these people of the really old generation that kind of took me under their wing. And then also, I was doing the Kimmel Center program with Anthony Tidd. Steve Coleman would come down and do masterclasses from time to time with that program. That’s how I met Jonathan [Finlayson] and Marcus Gilmore and all the people in the M-Base crowd. That’s how I kind of got started checking out that music and getting into that stuff.
TJG: Now you’re in New York—you’re playing at the clubs, you’re billing yourself as the headliner. What has developed in terms of the way you see yourself as being a part of this legacy?
IW: I’m trying to think of the defining moment. I think at this point, I more concerned about playing good. I was talking to Kenny Washington today, and he was talking about how he was talking to Dizzy. He asked Dizzy, “Man, how’d you change music like this? What were you and Bird thinking?” and Dizzy was just like, “Man, we were just trying to play good—we were just trying to play.” That spoke to me. I guess my place in the lineage is just trying to continue the line. I’m trying to play good. And if that happens to change things, then good. That means maybe I stumbled upon something worth exploring. But if not, that’s fine, too. I’m trying to play good.
TJG: I’ve talked about the “Philly sound” with people like Johnathan Blake—as something that’s laid back while having that alive, very forward momentum. What’s your interpretation of the Philly sound, and how would you say it has influenced your playing and your approach to music? Or is it something that’s more essential and you can’t really define it?
IW: Okay, the Philly sound. I remember, for me at least, growing up in Philly, we were all trying to sound like Trane. I think John Coltrane has the biggest influence on the Philly sound, at least when I was younger. We would go to jam sessions and cats would call these long modal tunes, and we’d stretch out for like 20 minutes on one chord—as opposed to here. Cats are calling tunes with chords—like, actual changes. I think there are benefits for both. One thing I’ve learned from Philly is that there’s a certain depth that all the musicians who come out of Philadelphia play with: Jaleel (Shaw), Justin Faulkner, Johnathan Blake, Orrin—any of these people. There’s a certain depth to their playing that’s something almost only Philly people recognize. And secretly, I realized it once I got to New York. When I first got here, I was like, “Man, I’m not having any experiences like I was back home.” And I realized that depth is very special to Philly. It’s a certain Philly thing. Honestly, I put it up there as one of the cities close to New Orleans. It’s up there with New Orleans in terms of [being] a serious jazz town that has a deep connection to the music, and a deep foundation for what happens after.
TJG: Since you brought it up, let’s talk about blowing. You and Jonathan have distinct, unique ways of constructing solos, and you’re both tremendously receptive players as well as players who offer a lot of information in your soloing. What are you most looking forward to, in terms of inspiration, playing with and alongside Jonathan?
IW: First of all, I love Jonathan’s playing. I guess I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know if this should be on the record or off the record—you make the decision—but I haven’t checked out the music yet. But I am looking forward to it just because I have checked out a lot of M-Base stuff, so I’m interested to see how much of that is in Jonathan’s stuff. And in a sextet setting it’s going to be interesting, because I haven’t heard that concept in a three-horn type of situation. I’m really looking forward to it. Also I love Craig. Craig Weinrib’s playing drums on all of it. Craig’s my man.
TJG: Do you want to talk about your connection to the personnel on this upcoming performance?
IW: I met Craig right when I moved to New York. We played a session at Aaron Parks’ house. I remember he heard me and he took a liking to me, and I always liked listening to Craig, before that even. And so I called him on my first leader gig in New York, at the Gallery. Ever since then, we’ve been playing off and on a little bit. He’s one of my favorite drummers in New York. I don’t know Brian Settles, but I’m looking forward to hearing him. I’m sure he’s great. David Bryant—how’d I meet David? I guess just around the scene, but he’s also one of my favorite piano players. He’s great—he’s really amazing. And John Hébert, I’ve listened to him, but I’ve never met him or played with him, so that should be fun. I do like his playing.
TJG: I know you said you haven’t exactly checked it out yet, but the music you’ll be presenting, is it all Johnathan’s?
IW: I think it’s music from the new record he just released [3 Times Round]. I know it’s a sextet and I’m pretty sure the alto player is Steve Lehman on the record.
TJG: In addition to being from Philly, you also came up, as so many artists in New York have, playing in the church. In what ways did that experience give you an understanding of what your instrument could do, maybe before you knew what you wanted to do with your instrument?
IW: When I first started playing saxophone, I started in church. The only time I would play was at church, and coming home and playing the music I heard that day, figuring it out on my horn. My parents wouldn’t give me lessons [at first], because I went through a bunch of instruments before then, and they paid for lessons for all of those. So this one, they were like, “Alright, you gotta prove to me you wanna learn how to play.” So I learned the church songs, and then I started playing in the church. I was playing saxophone in church for about five years maybe. They didn’t really need a saxophone player, so I’d end up learning keyboards, bass, drums and then organ a little bit. So I kind of shifted, at that point; it was more or less me trying to fulfill a role.
But let me answer your question. When I was playing saxophone in church—because my first experience was me coming home from church and trying to figure out a church song, I was close to emulating voices. That’s something that the horn kind of showed me. I didn’t have any other references. I mean there were records around the house; my dad had a lot of jazz records, so did my mom. So I had heard the saxophone, but that was a formative experience for me—coming home from church and learning those songs. So I immediately connected with the vocal quality. Even though trumpet and trombone are kind of known for being a little bit more vocal, I was trying to get that same sound. I was trying to get that same replication from the saxophone.
TJG: Is that early experience informing the way to play right now?
IW: Oh, totally. I’m still attracted to people who sound the most human—Ornette Coleman, Johnny Hodges, Trane. People who sound human, that’s what I like about music in general. It’s that connection between humans.
TJG: I know this mentorship series has a business component, also. What would you say are some challenges you’ve encountered as you’ve begun to market yourself as an artist?
IW: The broad answer to that question is, I haven’t really thought about it as much as I should. And these are people out there with records. Jonathan just came out with a new record. I just—literally today—we just solidified the studio date for my band to go into the studio.
TJG: For your first record?
IW: Yeah. So seeing these sort of parallels, or not parallels, but intersecting lines, it gives me some good talking points because he’s done this and I have no idea what the recording process entails—or touring—or anything that involves being a real musician. I need some work on those things.
TJG: It’s rough out there.
IW: It really is. That’s amazing—it really is rough out here.
TGJ: Are you with a label or are you putting this out yourself?
IW: I’m going to record it and then try to pitch it to a label.
TJG: Old school.
TJG: What do you hope listeners will bring with them to this upcoming performance?
IW: Open ears. My ears are also going to be open. One thing I am looking forward to is I’m going to be coming to this almost as an audience member. I haven’t been in the band. This is already a set band. So coming into it, it’s kind of my job to fit in where I can and find my own voice within the umbrella of what is the Jonathan Finlayson Sextet. So I’m going to be just as open as I hope the audience is.
The Jazz Gallery Mentorship Series presents: Jonathan Finlayson Group featuring Immanuel Wilkins performs at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday October 10, and at The National Jazz Museum in Harlem on Thursday October 11, 2018. The group features Mr. Finlayson on trumpet, Mr. Wilkins on alto saxophone, Brian Settles on tenor saxophone, David Bryant on piano, John Hebert on bass and Craig Weinrib on drums. On Wednesday, sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set; on Thursday, show begins at 7pm $10 general admission. Purchase tickets here and here.