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Immanuel Wilkins Aims to Communicate the Spirit Within on The 7th Hand

The alto saxophonist speaks of the Pentecostal Church, the Book of Ezekiel, the concept of vesselhood—and braising short ribs

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Immanuel Wilkins (photo: Rog Walker)
Immanuel Wilkins (photo: Rog Walker)

On an unseasonably warm evening in December, just at the opening break of Omicron and yet another shift in everyone’s lives, alto saxophonist/composer Immanuel Wilkins is busy in his new Brooklyn home. Cooking. A lot.

Calm in the face of a just-canceled show at the Village Vanguard while readying The 7th Hand—his second Blue Note album with his longtime quartet (pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Daryl Johns, drummer Kweku Sumbry)—Wilkins passionately runs through cuisine-related minutiae as if he were tightening his ligature or wetting his reeds.

Preparing braised short ribs with more tinkling and crashing than you might hear from his drummer’s cymbals at a gig, Wilkins laughs as he discusses the joy of cooking. “I had spent so much money on exorbitant dinners before COVID that I didn’t want to suddenly start having sad meals while stuck at home,” he says of having hooked himself up with quality chef tools to prepare his favorites. “My easy go-to is salmon, but I can cook a mean duck breast. I can also do vegan. Both ends of the spectrum.”

Having moved during the pandemic from the Philadelphia area’s Upper Darby Township, where he was born and raised, Wilkins has made many recent changes beyond honing his culinary skills. The most immediately noticeable one for those familiar with his debut album—August 2020’s raw, sometimes mournful, sometimes incendiary Omega, which got him a Best New Artist nod in this magazine’s Critics’ Poll last year—is in the production department. Whereas Omega was produced by pianist Jason Moran, on The 7th Hand Wilkins has taken the reins himself. 

“The desire to produce came from the fact that this music was special to me, a little more sacred,” he says. “The band and I had a natural way of playing through this music. Everything was pretty set, and I thought that it was just best if we had no outside influence in the recording process.” (There’s been no break with Moran, the man who took Wilkins under his wing, brought the saxophonist on a tour of Europe, and introduced him to Blue Note president Don Was; he remains a close friend.)

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When Wilkins says that the music was sacred, he means it in both a figurative and a literal sense. The 7th Hand’s connection to God, and to spiritual reverence, is deep. “My relationship to my spiritual practices and to the church has grown more philosophical,” he says. “With that, I’ve come to realize the parallels—that my music sits in a really interesting intersection between my spiritual practices and my critique of Black social life and Black America [as heard on Omega tracks like “Ferguson (An American Tradition)”]. That intersection is a place that essentially escapes the white gaze of the outside: a place where amazing and beautiful things happen, hilarious things happen, and where there is mental and musical growth.

I was writing a suite that would prepare me to become a vessel for the Creator.

Vesselhood

The church Wilkins speaks of, in Upper Darby (and in his heart, of course), is where this all starts. He and his family started off as Baptists, but they became part of the Pentecostal Church—Prayer Chapel Church of God in Christ, to be precise—and have never left. Even though he lives in Brooklyn now, the saxophonist and his quartet are still involved in the church’s outreach programs, giving out food to community members on Fridays. Wilkins also plays piano at the Upper Darby church on Sundays when he gets back to town, taking on hymns and popular gospel songs.

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“I started playing saxophone when I was at the Baptist church,” Wilkins says, referring to himself at age four. “By the time we got to the Pentecostal church, I continued on the saxophone and picked up the bass and piano. What’s special about that church—and it’s known for its high caliber of musicianship—is that everyone is coming there of their own volition. No one playing in church is getting paid. Though I was a specialist by playing saxophone, you learn to become more utilitarian and play other instruments because you never know when you have to fill in.”

Among the things that interest Wilkins, and that The 7th Hand is meant to explore, are (in his words) “how to act as water, how we progress as a people yet still hold onto core values, how the church exists on an unexplainable quantum level—the special things that happen when you have oppressed people, who continue to be oppressed, gathering in a space to celebrate.”

As he says this, I’m reminded of Brian Wilson saying how the Beach Boys’ Smile album was a teenage symphony to God, or how John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme served as the highest extension of his religious beliefs. Like A Love Supreme, The 7th Hand is a suite, but in seven parts rather than four. And with that Biblically symbolic number, the heart of Wilkins’ thesis statement is revealed: In the Book of Ezekiel, God commands the prophet to build an altar measuring six cubits and one handbreadth. The number six represents the extent of human possibility, while seven connotes divine intervention. “I was writing a suite,” Wilkins says plainly, “that would prepare me to become a vessel for the Creator.

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“In a lot of ways, I see this vesselhood directly related to performance art in that we are presenting our bodies as a sacrifice,” he continues. “By the seventh movement [the 26-minute “Lift”], we’re completely surrendered to the piece. There is no written material, so it’s all completely improvised. The player has no option but to be filled, no option but to catch the Holy Spirit, no option but to be a vessel by that seventh movement.” As in church, there’s no conscious decision; the Spirit happens to you. Through you. With you.

“I think that I created the seven movements as a preparatory piece,” Wilkins says, “a conveyor belt where, once you’ve entered and are on it, you’re on your way. That’s what makes The 7th Hand more inherently spiritual than Omega to me, that feeling of surrender and its intentionality: how each movement deals with a certain sector of Black life pertaining to spirituality. By that seventh movement, or vignette, we have achieved liftoff into another realm.” 

Immanuel Wilkins (photo: Rog Walker)
Immanuel Wilkins (photo: Rog Walker)

Collective Spirit

That “we” includes the rest of Wilkins’ quartet: Thomas, Johns, and Sumbry, all of whom have been playing with the saxophonist since 2016. What spoken and/or unspoken discussion makes them fully in tune with their leader’s trip? Is his God their God?

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“I have a fair picture of their individual spiritual walks,” Wilkins says of his bandmates. He and Sumbry lived together in Harlem for three years, with Thomas visiting often. “They knew what was going on from jump. Being friends for such a long time meant that they were down for whatever I dream up. More importantly, there’s an understanding that this is their experience as well, that they can use it as a vehicle for themselves, to experience their own idea of vesselhood. Because we’re all surrendering. Without surrender, this music doesn’t work.”

Like Wilkins, Micah Thomas is a proud believer who credits church organists such as Eddie Brown and Derrick Jackson (along with Cecil Taylor, Sullivan Fortner, and Moran) as direct inspirations. He met Wilkins when both were attending Juilliard, and he was immediately attracted to the saxophonist’s skill sets. “His playing felt strong to me right off the bat, and his compositions felt like home,” Thomas says. “By about a year of playing together, I started noticing that we had—almost unconsciously—produced a ‘sound’ together, and that it was now easier for me to play with him than other horn players.

“Often it seems like we either arrived at similar conclusions at the same time, or one of us will influence the other and then we’ll forget where the idea started,” he continues. “I think Immanuel’s writing pushed me into checking out the Black gospel music tradition. I’d also say that he is the more gifted and developed composer, so playing his music and talking to him about writing has helped me on my compositional path.”

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And what about this vesselhood thing? Thomas says that, while playing the newer material, there exists “a sense in which I feel like I’m not in control when I’m playing music. At that ideal stage, it feels like I am obeying instructions from somewhere else—that I’m simply making what I know somewhere deep inside of me to be the right call at any moment. I wonder if that’s a deeper, truer part of me that lies beneath my ego and operates in a way that my ego doesn’t understand. And that feels like the part of me that would be closer to God.”

Kweku Sumbry is not affiliated with the Pentecostal Church; he was raised in the traditional spiritual practice of the Akan from Ghana, West Africa. While Wilkins was at Juilliard, Sumbry was a student at the New School. During a 2015 rehearsal sub session there with a mutual friend, vibraphonist Joel Ross, the drummer got his first opportunity to jam with the saxophonist. “Not exactly sure why, but Immanuel and I hit it off immediately,” he says. “Maybe it had something to do with us both having dreadlocks, but we became really good friends after that session. Immanuel has always given the band free will with his music, stressing that the drums pretty much be the director of the band. I think that my strong background in percussion, and West African folklore has helped drive Immanuel to include the African diaspora in what he writes, and what we play.”

Sumbry sees his role as conduit for a higher power differently from Wilkins. “We all are critical free-thinking folk, and even though I wasn’t raised in the church, my family is very committed to prayer, ceremony, and spirit. Micah’s father is actually a preacher, and he and I always make room for religious and spiritual dialogue. I remember we played in Philly in the summer of 2018 and Immanuel put us up in his family’s home, and his mother literally dragged us to church Sunday morning after our gig. I think we all look at music as a language of the holy spirit. This band is filled with really special people, and each individual has his own way of igniting spirit within the music.”

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I’m always Philly. I may live in New York but I’m Philadelphia, through and through.

Past Inspiration

As we discuss the elements of spirit, ritual, and repetition in his newer music, Wilkins and I reach the topic of latter-day Coltrane: A Love Supreme, Ascension, Meditations. “I’ve been having these conversations with friends as to why John Coltrane’s music sounds like church,” he says. “And what I arrived at was that Trane with his quartet was employing spiritual practices in the music. So along with repetition, there’s sheets of sound and modality in which to contend—straight-up spiritual practices such as Buddhist chants or tarrying as in Black churches. Implementing this was important.”

Wilkins’ levels of longtime influence include various elders of Philly jazz: Jamaladeen Tacuma, Orrin Evans, Mickey Roker. “We carry our ancestors and traditions on our back, Philadelphia included, especially as we play a naturally improvisatory music,” he says. “Besides, I’m always Philly. I may live in New York but I’m Philadelphia, through and through.”

In past conversations with this writer, Wilkins has discussed his love of Coltrane, Mingus, Ellington, Benny Carter, Ornette Coleman, and Henry Threadgill. Brazilian guitarist Pedro Martins is a more recent love, as are Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Charles Lloyd, and Milford Graves. His affection for Graves is so ardent that Wilkins and Sumbry recently joined John Zorn in a memorial celebration for the late multi-discipinarian. “Me and Kweku have bonded over Graves for a while, especially his time playing for Ayler. And Micah is very into Cecil Taylor too at present.”

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Much of the angularity of Ayler and Taylor can be found in the more frenzied phases of The 7th Hand. The lengthy percussive slot during the looped lullaby of “Don’t Break” (an exhaustive treatise on “Black footwork where the dancer is in a trance and dances like the deity which possesses them,” says Wilkins says) conjures elements of James Brown. The quick curlicues in the middle section of “Emanation” are even reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s 1970s-era chord changes. “My father is a huge Zappa fan—that must be coming through the genes,” Wilkins says, laughing.

Beyond all of it, there’s the blues, much more of it here than on Omega (especially during the track “Shadown,” on which Ornette looms large). “How the blues came about, those transformative moments of inception, were important to this album,” Wilkins says. “The blues coming out of Negro spirituals, songs sung on the plantation mixed with moans and cries, is how we got this nearly-unexplainably spiritual sound that then infiltrates the Black church to become the centerpiece of hymns, and the way that Black sacred music moves from that point forward.”

Immanuel Wilkins: The 7th Hand (Blue Note)
The cover of The 7th Hand by Immanuel Wilkins

 Becoming Water

The cover image of The 7th Hand—a baptismal ritual with Wilkins at its center—depicts a transformative moment: “when Africans became African Americans, something that surely happened on the water,” he says. “I was thinking of water as a transformative element. The immersion of being baptized, and the immersive experience of becoming a vessel, what it means to catch the Holy Spirit.”

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Catching the Holy Spirit is one thing, but releasing it was quite another. For the follow-up to Omega, Wilkins and crew had several albums’ worth of material ready to go. “We’re backlogged with music that we’re comfortable with but have not yet recorded,” Wilkins acknowledges. What was comfortable enough to warrant forward movement were The 7th Hand’s tracks, honed during a vigorous four-day residency at SEEDS::Brooklyn in Prospect Heights. “Within the conditions of a pandemic with no tour, it’s tricky to catch a live vibe, so that residency was nice, and led directly to us going into the studio in August. We knocked it all out in one day, then focused on refining it.”

The power of gathering, as depicted in “Emanation,” unfolds on the axis of the Bible verse that inspired it. “When two or three gather together, there am I in the midst,” Wilkins repeats. “I love that idea, how gathering can generate an emanation.” “Fugitive Ritual, Selah” looks at Black church custom with an eye toward Twitter and TikTok (“super-hilarious stuff inside of churches with people cutting up, but also being introspective and prayerful”). With “Don’t Break,” the shouting of Black church ritual, African dance, and Double Dutch become one.

In Wilkins’ experience, as The 7th Hand makes plain, God is never on a shelf or stuck in a book; God is a living, breathing thing. The saxophonist connects that experience to his other daily practice beyond prayer: playing jazz. 

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“I feel this way on the bandstand,” he says. “When you get into this mode and are no longer in control of what is being played. You’re just watching the rest of the world pass you by—you become a witness. That’s the pillar of vesselhood, the mark of being there.” 

Read about Wilkins’ first album, Omega

Immanuel Wilkins and Itamar Borochov Are “Rising Stars”

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