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The 33rd Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle

Washington State’s most important annual jazz event puts on its 2021 edition—with people

Immanuel Wilkins Quartet Earshot 2021
Left to right: Micah Thomas, Tyrone Allen, Immanuel Wilkins, and Mike Mitchell in the Langston Hughes Theater at the 2021 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

The last three events that this report will cover were held in the Langston Hughes Theater on October 22, 23, and 24. All featured very young emerging artists. They will be taken in reverse order.

Samara Joy and Sullivan Fortner played on October 24. Joy is unusually mature for a 21-year-old. She has an alluring velvet voice but she rarely shows it off for its own sake. Because she stays within herself, she makes you come to her. She sang almost exclusively time-honored standards: “Sunday,” “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” Her interpretations were so pure and meticulous they felt definitive. She allows her lucid voice to reveal these great songs and let them live. Still, she is a jazz singer. She can hit hard when she wants to. She can glide up and down the expanse of her large range and bend notes like pretzels.

Fortner made his reputation as an accompanist for singers with Cécile McLorin Salvant. With Joy, he played with tasteful restraint. His fills and short solos were always what the moment called for.

At this beginning stage in her career, Joy is not yet able to indelibly imprint her personality on a song. But her gifts could make her an important singer in the future. 

Sullivan Fortner and Samara Joy Earshot 2021
Sullivan Fortner and Samara Joy in the Langston Hughes Theater at the 2021 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

A quintet led by 22-year-old Giveton Gelin appeared on October 23. He is from Nassau in the Bahamas but has relocated to New York and has attended Juilliard. Gelin has chops and appears committed to finding his own path within the broad parameters of the modern jazz trumpet tradition. You hear one of his mentors, Roy Hargrove, in his fanfares and flourishes. His progress should be interesting to watch. For two members of his band, the future is already here. They are cerebral, forceful, articulate tenor saxophonist Morgan Guerin and 24-year-old pianist extraordinaire Micah Thomas. Whenever Thomas soloed it was fascinating to find out what he would come up with next, and it was always bizarre and revelatory and different every time. He might do crashing chords and flat-hand smashes and build gigantic walls of sound, with cluster bombs of treble exploding from the keys. Or he might play delicate, precisely fingered single-note lines of surpassing poignance. Thomas is a rising star.

Giveton Gelin at the 2021 Earshot Jazz Festival
Giveton Gelin in the Langston Hughes Theater at the 2021 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

Expectations were high for the night of October 22 because there is a loud buzz on the jazz street over Immanuel Wilkins. In 2020 his debut album Omega, recorded when he was 22, received recognition that is very rare for a first record. It placed #6 in the JazzTimes Critics’ Poll. According to the New York Times, it was the best record of the year.

From the first notes of Wilkins’ concert in Langston Hughes, it began to be clear what all the buzz is about. The piece was the title track from the album. Wilkins hit you in the face with it. He pinned you to the back of your seat. He immediately ascended to a level of intensity that is the domain of only a few jazz musicians. One who lived in that domain was John Coltrane, and Wilkins’ torrential outpourings sometimes sounded like an alto-saxophone version of Coltrane’s “sheets of sound.” But many voices can be heard in Wilkins’ rocketing runs and keening trills and shattering cries, including Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. There is also Bird and all the bebop warriors who came after. Yet the totality is something unique called Immanuel Wilkins. It is as radical as anything in avant-garde jazz and yet it holds together in ways the avant-garde often does not. It contains vivid melodies that keep flying by, and when you perceive them it changes your relationship to the clamor. You hear it for the sweeping symphony it is.

Wilkins played music from Omega exclusively (except for a brief encore): “Warriors,” “Ferguson—An American Tradition,” “The Dreamer,” “Grace and Mercy.” He also played the single most viscerally wrenching piece on the album, “Mary Turner—An American Tradition.” It is for a woman who was eight months pregnant when she was lynched, upside down, in Georgia in 1918. On the album, Wilkins’ portrayal of her suffering, in four minutes, was a remarkable act of the imagination. The treatment in Langston Hughes was longer. In person, it was an even more transformative listening experience.

For all of its vehemence, there is range in Wilkins’ music, both dynamically and emotionally. Sometimes he turns inward and arrives at soft passages played in lonely, incantatory tones that make you realize what a beautiful sound he has on alto saxophone.

Immanuel Wilkins and Mike Mitchell Earshot 2021
Immanuel Wilkins and Mike Mitchell in the Langston Hughes Theater at the 2021 Earshot Jazz Festival (photo: Lisa Hagen Glynn)

Micah Thomas (who played on Omega) was the pianist for both Wilkins and Gelin. He was even wilder with Wilkins. But he was also crucial to Wilkins’ quieter moments, as when “Ferguson,” at the end, became a lament for the fallen, a ceremony of mourning.

Wilkins’ bassist and drummer were subs: Tyrone Allen and Mike Mitchell. Wilkins had never performed with Mitchell in a formal setting. They were both full participants in all the hell that got raised at this concert.

Over the years, there have been special moments at Earshot festivals that have passed into Seattle jazz history and are now steeped in legend: Keith Jarrett in Meany Hall at the University of Washington in 1995. Brad Mehldau in the Nordstrom Recital Hall in 2017. Immanuel Wilkins’ night in Seattle in 2021 will take its place among them. A few years from now, many more people will claim to have been there than the Langston Hughes Theater can hold. Especially at half capacity.

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.