Where are the great jazz saxophonists today?
The last of the giants of the 1950s and 1960s, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter, have retired from live performance (though Shorter’s operatic collaboration with bassist Esperanza Spalding, Iphigenia, is just completing its debut run). The Young Lions who made their impact in the 1980s and 1980s — Branford Marsalis, Kenny Garrett, Donald Harrison, Joe Lovano and Greg Osby among them — continue to gig and record honorably, though without the boost they received from the recording industry before its post-Napster collapse. The flame kindled by Kamasi Washington’s ambitious remounting of 1970s spiritual jazz — two triple-disc sets, 2015’s The Epic and 2018’s Heaven and Earth — seems to have sputtered in the face of mass market fame, giving way to lower profile collaborations and soundtracks.
Who might carry that torch into 2022 ? I give you Immanuel Wilkins.
I gave Wilkins’ 2020 debut for Blue Note, Omega, a cursory listen when it came out, but missed the depths on display back then. Returning to it recently, I was belatedly blown away. Steeped in the music of the black church, Wilkins’ compositions offer a fresh take on spiritual jazz, leaner and more abstract; like Thelonious Monk’s best work, there’s an interior focus to his taut, angular writing. That interior emotion is unleashed via his playing; having thoroughly assimilated Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane’s vocabularies, Wilkins sends his solos spinning in freshly oblique directions. And he’s aided and abetted by his kinetic quartet (Micah Thomas on piano, Daryl Johns on bass and Kweku Sumbry on drums) who skitter as much as they swing, astonishingly flexible and in sync with their leader, whether at their knottiest or their most romantic.
The ambition of those compositions is noteworthy as well, though not surprising if you factor in Wilkins’ mentoring by both traditionalist par excellence Wynton Marsalis and cutting-edge postmodern pianist Jason Moran. Omega’s tunes run the gamut from the painful grief of “Ferguson: An American Tradition” through the fluid lyricism of “Grace and Mercy” to the dense, richly varied ideas of a four part suite composed during Wilkins’ time at the Julliard School of Music (“The Key”, “Saudade”, “Eulogy” and “Guarded Heart”). The absolute opposite of a blowing session, Omega laid down Wilkins’ impressive jazz credentials as a writer and a player — but also could have been an extremely hard act to follow.
To my delight, Wilkins’ new album, The 7th Hand, ups the ante! First, a six-part suite bookended by seething post-bop probes and modal riffing (“Emanation” and “Lighthouse”) that explores the polyrhythms of African percussion (“Don’t Break”), gospel music (“Fugitive Ritual, Selah”), the blues (“Shadow”) and folk hymnody (“Witness”). Then “Lift”, a half-hour of committed free exploration that broods, then snaps awake and howls in catharsis before it flutters to a soft, delicate landing. The concept behind it all: does the Holy Spirit have a role in what Wilkins, his quartet and his guests (the Farafina Kan Percussion Ensemble and flutist Elena PInderhughes) are creating in the moment? Given the consistent inspiration laid down here, I wouldn’t bet against it.
As always, your mileage may vary. But if you have any interest in the present and future of jazz saxophone, I strongly suggest you check out Immanuel Wilkins for yourself. Learn more about his Blue Note releases here.
— Rick Krueger