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.