For the past few months, emerging alto saxophonist and composer Immanuel Wilkins has been busy pinning down a studio date for his debut recording, while working alongside his mentor—trumpet player, composer and consummate band leader Jonathan Finlayson—who recently released his third album 3 Times Round (Pi Recordings, 2018).
Throughout their careers, Wilkins and Finlayson have collaborated with the Count Basie Orchestra, Gerald Clayton, Lalah Hathaway, Solange Knowles and Bob Dylan, and Steve Coleman, Mary Halvorson, Steve Lehman, Dafnis Prieto and Vijay Iyer, respectively.
From individual places of pause in Philadelphia, Pennsylvia and Heilbronn, Germany, the two artists let slip a few moments from their nonstop schedules to talk musical progression, career development and why the Gallery’s mentorship series is so much more than taking an underage saxophone player out for drinks at the Hog’s Head Tavern in Harlem—not that anyone has.
The Jazz Gallery: Jonathan, I know you pull daily inspiration from all kinds of artistic mediums, including painting and sculpture, films and literature. Can you talk about any specific ways in which this artistic saturation in the way you live day to day influences your composing and playing?
Jonathan Finlayson: I don’t know—I think it’s kind of the life I set up for myself, and the way I’ve viewed myself living it. There are components I look for, for inspiration overall, on a monthly basis—not even monthly, maybe weekly—that kind of inform the things that I do in some way. I can’t say how concretely [those things inform my work]. I also listen to a lot of music, as well. So I wouldn’t say that’s the information I use to compose or play, but I do feel that it is, for myself, important to check these things out and see how people are doing things in other mediums—who are doing it well.
TJG: Do you ever see any ideas your exploring in your own work reflected in other people’s works within different mediums? Ever draw any kind of parallels like that?
JF: Nothing concrete. That is to say, there’s nothing direct like, “He made a straight line; I’m going to make a straight line.” But abstractly, and figuratively? Sure, all the time. We’re all human beings. So if someone does something well in one area, odds are if you do something well in another area, there’s going to be some kind of hookup at some point. It doesn’t have to be action for action, but those things are there whether it’s sports or arts—visual, the written word.
TJG: As a listener, I hear a lot lyricism in both of your playing, and Jonathan, sometimes detect a feeling of defiance in yours.
JF: I take issue with the word “defiance,” but the best answer I can give you is that I’m just being myself.
TJG: There are artists out there who are born trailblazers, and I’d venture to say you’re one of those artists.
Immanuel Wilkins: I think why you sound defiant is because you do a similar thing—and I think this also speaks to the lyricism—the way you phrase, a lot of the time, conceptually is out a bebop tradition of playing good phrase after good phrase, kind of like how Bird doesn’t develop one thing over a solo; he plays great phrases—chunks—after others. And I think that can sometimes come across as radically different from what some people are doing on the scene these days.
JF: You can correct me if I’m wrong, Immanuel, but I think it was Ben Webster that snatched the horn from Charlie Parker and told him it’s not supposed to be played like that.
IW: Oh wow (laughs)
JF: Not equating myself with Charlie Parker, but in terms of the concept of defiance.
TJG: Maybe a less inquiry-driven question: Jonathan, what are some strategies you’ve been using to approach writing and arranging for you and Immanuel?
JF: The first two gigs we did, we played music from the last CD I put out [3 Times Round]. The first two mentorship gigs kind of landed around the CD release. It wasn’t technically a CD release, but I thought it would be fun to play the music from that album, and have Immanuel sub for Steve (Lehman). I thought it would be good for everybody—a win/win situation.
TJG: Did he sub defiantly?
JF: He subbed with much grace.
TJG: So 3 Times Round is your third release as a leader, Jonathan, and Immanuel, you soon will be going into the studio for your first release as a leader. Jonathan, can you talk about any expectations you had for this record?
JF: I just try and make a good product; afterwards, it’s kind of out of my hands. That’s the thing with art. I just make sure it’s good by my personal definition of good—what I want to hear. And then beyond that, it’s not up to me.
TJG: And is there anything you know now, that you wish you had known when you were in Immanuel’s place putting out your first record?
JF: No. Because I can’t be the me that I am now that I was then. It’s not possible. The way I look at it, with anyone else’s career—like a Coltrane, or what not—there are like markers of progression: my first album to my second album to my third album. People, if this happens and they come back, they figure out who I am [now] and then they go back and they buy my first album and they buy the second one and the third one—you’ve got to hear a progression of maturity and ideas—a musical maturity, etcetera. Otherwise, if I knew what I knew on my third album on the first, I don’t see what the point would be.
TJG: Is there anything you wish you had known from the business angle that you now know?
TJG: Immanuel, your recording date is fast approaching. What are you most excited about and what might you be struggling with?
IW: I’m excited about it; I’ve mapped it out. I’m big on writing things down and planning out stuff pretty far in advance, so I had everything the way I wanted it to be maybe a year ago. I’ve had everything set in stone as to what I wanted; at this point, it’s kind of about [putting] people in place to facilitate that for me. That’s also kind of why I didn’t try to wait for a label. I’m trying to do it myself and pitch it later. My vision is pretty clear now as [far as] how I want to be represented, and I’d rather not have something getting in the way of that.
JF: So you’re not looking to be produced, is what you’re saying.
IW: I’m having Jason Moran produce the record but I’m not looking for someone to make decisions for me. I want to be in control at the end of the day. I want to pick who I get advice from; I don’t want a label coming in and saying, “Okay, we’re going to set you up with this guy,” or, “We think you should put this on your record,” or, “We think you should do this,” you know? I’m stubborn. I’m in full-stubborn mode: “I know what I want. This is what I want.” Even if it’s immature, it’s what I want right now. That’s how I want to be represented, and that’s how I want to be documented. Especially on my first record, I want it to be whatever I’m doing right now.
TJG: Sympatico. That’s what Jonathan was talking about in terms of a snapshot of where your progression is at that moment. I recently had an interview with Pete Bernstein, and he talked about the label people coming in and pitching concepts like, “Well I think you should throw in a bluegrass tune here, etcetera,” and his commentary was, “Man, you guys are just full of ideas!”
IW: Exactly. And that’s the thing. I get it—they’re in the business of trying to sell records, which is great. We need that, too. But at the end of the day, I’m not in the business of that. To be honest with you, I don’t even care if I sell records. I just want my music to be, authentically, whatever it is. If people want that, that’s great, but I’m creating my art for me. And for other people—
JF: But me, first.
IW: Yeah. I’m not in the business of trying to sell records to sell records.
JF: You’ve got to get it right with yourself first, and then you put it out.
TJG: And have you encountered colleagues who take the opposing view?
JF: Absolutely. All the time. I take my personal stance on how I feel about things. I feel like I’m only really supposed to deal with the music. A lot of people say that’s stupid. And you’ve got to deal with a little bit of business, but I try to deal with as little bit as possible. Maybe that’s why I am where I am right now; I don’t know. I’m just more into dealing with the music.
TJG: As a listener, a similarity I notice in your playing is a kind of conversational development. I notice kind of an actionable receptivity, whether you’re soloing, playing backgrounds, etcetera. Immanuel, how would you say the musical conversation between the two of you has developed since you began this mentorship series?
IW: I definitely had a realization between the first gig and the second gig. Coming into the first gig, I kind of had to adjust the way I played to fit the orbit that [the band] was playing in. And then, from the second gig to the third, it was more about trying to figure that out and develop that. It definitely feels like they’ve been playing together for a while and they’re comfortable with each other. I was just trying to adjust to where they were and figure out my voice within that. [The first gig], I felt like I wasn’t serving the music as best as I could. The second gig, I was conscious about making different decisions, purposefully. I came into the gig with a different head space than I did the first gig.
JF: I noticed a difference between the first and the second set, actually, during the first gig.
IW: Ah—thanks, bro.
TJG: What did you notice, in particular?
JF: Well he’s a young, talented dude. It’s like any great boxer or in any great sport—they switch the defense. You’re making micro-adjustments as the night goes on. It doesn’t mean you’re going to figure it out in one swoop, but any good musician is making small adjustments. It’s a new environment for him, so [he’s] checking out the way that we play this music. The first set is going to be like the first set of any gig you ever do in your life; you’re not going to feel like you’re right there with it—doesn’t matter who it is. But, from the first to the second set, because we had two sets that night, you hopefully will make some kind of an adjustment, or take note of what you thought you could improve on in the first set.
I was going to say, the second night was fun, but I was most curious about the second gig to the third gig. For me, I felt like that was even more interesting of a leap. It was just a completely different setting and we played pretty open, but I think what was most telling was afterwards I had a conversation with an older musician who swore up and down, Immanuel, that we had music and we had things worked out. But, you know, [Immanuel] can listen and Brian can listen; cats are sensitive and pick things up. So of course, you can play spontaneously on an evening like that, and still make music of it without having any music.
TJG: Jonathan, you’re at a curious moment in your development because you have your own living mentors with whom you’re playing and consulting from time to time. How has the experience of becoming a mentor to someone in the younger generation affected your artistic perspective?
IW: You’re getting old, man
JF: (Laughs) I think I told someone on the first gig, “Look, I may be mentoring Immanuel, but I’m not that old.” No! That’s just what it says on paper! It’s actually a pretty funny—not even funny—it’s a very real cycle that happens, as you progress musically. When I was Immanuel’s age, I met Anthony Tidd and Ralph Alessi and Ravi [Coltrane]—people in New York. So that distance in age is not unfamiliar to me; it’s just that now I’m their age and Immanuel is the age I was when it was happening. It’s part of the progression of this music, but it’s also a duty, so to speak. I think it’s a wholly natural kind of occurrence. But in being part of it, it’s really great to be near and be inspired by youth, because you can get—well, you will get—far away from it, at some point.
There were moments when Immanuel was playing and I was like, “Oh shit. I used to be that young.” There’s this youthful energy, and it was a trip to be next to it again, when it’s really strong like that. And it affects everyone on stage; it’s a very [palpable] energy.
TJG: Do you find yourself comparing your development at that age to Immanuel’s current development?
JF: It would be easier with trumpet. But in terms of trajectory and direction and maturity, I think it’s only natural to see yourself in other people at some point in time, to give perspective.
TJG: Immanuel, is there anything you’d like to ask Jonathan that you haven’t asked him yet?
IW: No, but we had a nice little conversation with Craig [Weinrib] after the National Jazz Museum gig. It was very insightful. We were talking about touring and pay—how to be a band leader.
JF: And sidemen stuff. We talked about a bunch of minutiae—the music business, I guess, but also career trajectory—how you want to position yourself for the future, and what not to do.
TJG: Immanuel, have you found that despite taking some of these decisive steps to position yourself in a certain place, that deliberate positioning can get turned around by external factors?
IW: At this point in the game, for me, I’m taking what I can get—just because I’m trying to play, and I’m young. But Jonathan and everyone in the band are at a different point in their careers. They’re older and they’re not breaking onto the scene anymore. For them, it’s about moving up the ladder and making their status known on the scene. For me, I’m just trying to play. I just need gigs.
JF: I try not to create too much order that is out of my control in the end. So I don’t get arrogant about the things I can control, that are outside of my control in reality. I just try to practice, stay on a certain level, be musically confident, try and keep up with these young people (laughs)—just be a good musician, and I feel like the rest will fall into line.
TJG: Immanuel, what in particular would you like listeners to bring with them to this performance.
IW: What are we doing? Jonathan, what are we doing?
JF: Ha-ha! I’m not telling you.
JF: I’m not telling.
IW: I’m looking forward to it.
JF: It’s a surprise—that’s the best way. I know you know how to read music, so it’s fine.
IW: (Laughs) Sounds good.
The Jazz Gallery Mentoring Series presents: Jonathan Finlayson Group featuring Immanuel Wilkins performs at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday November 29, 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. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.