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.
TJG: How did you get connected with Nasheet [Waits]?
IW: I’ve been looking up to Nasheet since forever. He’s probably one of my favorite drummers of all time. I’m just so happy to have him playing with me. He exemplifies everything I just said above about what I see in the musicians I love.
TJG: You attended Banff this summer! How was it?
IW: I loved it. It’s a great time to get away, spend some time in the mountains. I learned the most, probably, from Tyshawn [Sorey]. He did a lot of masterclasses, a lot of talks. He showed me the seriousness and deepness of music in general, concerning avant-garde and improvised music. He got me into the great saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, whom I’ve been checking out a lot. And Tyshawn is a great human being. He’s showed me a lot in the little time we’ve spent together. We’ve developed a deeper relationship from Banff: That’s the dynamic between the faculty and students in general. They’re much more connected after the program. It’s a great thing.
TJG: Getting into the New York scene, you have a lot going on between school, gigs, projects. How do you organize your time?
IW: [Laughs] Yeah… [laughs again]. I’m definitely planning on finishing school, so school always becomes my first priority. I’m good at taking care of my work when it needs to be done. It’s hard, but I plan my gigs around when I know I’ll have time to work on stuff. Juilliard is very involved, a good kind of busy, but it does become a thing to deal with, you know?
TJG: How’s the community up there?
IW: I love it, I love it. Juilliard gets a bad rap in some circles, but it’s shaping my playing in a way that I don’t think any other school would. When I moved to New York, there were holes in my playing that Juilliard helped me fill in. It’s easy to get stuck in the Juilliard hang and not branch out. But if you can make a conscious effort to stretch out, it’s great. I love it.
TJG: Anything else about the upcoming show? What kind of music are you bringing?
IW: A lot of originals—all originals, in fact. I’ve been working on these tunes since about 2014. Compositionally, I’m in a place where I’m similar to Joel, in a way. We both played organ and piano in church. That’s another reason we get along so well, probably. We have the same vision in terms of where we want our music to go. There are some slight differences in our compositional styles, but we’re in the same vein. That’s where my music is from. Church, with Steve Coleman [laughs]. That’s the combination. Look out for it: It’s gonna be fun.
Saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, February 8th, 2017. Mr. Wilkins will be joined by Shai Maestro on piano, Daryl Johns on bass, and Nasheet Waits on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.