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.