IMMANUEL WILKINS — Omega (review)

IMMANUEL WILKINS — Omega album cover Album · 2020 · 21st Century Modern Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
“Omega” is the first album by saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, but he is hardly a new comer to the jazz scene. Since his arrival in NYC in 2015 he has been building a solid reputation as an educator and as a sideman with artists as diverse as Jason Moran, Branford Marsalis, the Count Basie Orchestra and Bob Dylan. He and his chosen band have been working together for four years and it shows through in their strong communication and interplay. At first listen, “Omega” carries the hallmarks of modern jazz with its abstract and energetic mix of post bop, fusion and free jazz, but there is something new and different present in Wilkins’ music, and if you are not familiar with African American church music you might miss it. Yes, Wilkins’ music is often abstract and complex, but there is also a strong emotional element present as well. The cries and the longings of gospel music are here, but not in any cliché way. Immanuel and his band may present an emotional melody, but the way they work with it and develop it is pure modern jazz.

Wilkins often has a dry direct sax tone similar to Jackie MacLean and Steve Coleman, but he can also build up to an expressive melodic cry that recalls Albert Alyer and latter day Coltrane. The way in which Immanuel can build a solo off of a single melodic base may remind some of Kenny Garret as well. Pianist Micah Thomas has some Herbie Hancock in him, but he can also thunder in the big two handed tradition that has passed from Art Tatum to Matthew Shipp. Drummer Kweku Sumbry uses the entire kit in his maelstrom assaults in that style preferred by today’s NYC based drummers, and bassist Daryl Jones can be quite melodic, even doubling Wilkins on some of the songs melodies. The hallmark of this band is the way in which they can work together as an ensemble, trading and combining ideas in ways that break down the cliché roles of soloist and accompanist. The wide range of this band is also remarkable as they move from intense free modern bop to lyrical ballads.

The main difference in Immanuel’s music is in its powerful emotional content. There is so much great music these days, but so much of it is intellectual and dry and seems to lack heart. Even Wilkins’ song titles are significant as they reference poignant history such as Ferguson and Mary Turner, as well as his attempts to look inside with titles like “Grace and Mercy” and “Guarded Heart”. If you are tired of clever smirky play on words as song titles, you’ll find none of that here, same goes for the music. Immanuel and his band play like they mean it. Its rare for my reviews to indulge in superlatives, but this album deserves it. “Omega” is one of the best debuts I have ever heard and is also one of the best jazz albums for this year. Wilkins has managed to present a very original and personal vision, and that is not easy to do. Also, I don’t mind telling you that the ending of “Gaurded Heart” had me in tears, that doesn’t happen often with me and modern jazz music.
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