Although he is only in his twenties, saxophonist and composer Immanuel Wilkins has already established himself as one of jazz’s brightest stars. His debut album, “Omega” (2020), was released on the famed Blue Note label and earned a No. 1 spot on the New York Times’ Best Jazz Albums of 2020 list. On his second album “The 7th Hand,” released Jan. 28, Wilkins brings together the same quartet featured on “Omega,” consisting of pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Daryl Johns and drummer Kweku Sumbry.
Wilkins’ mature, contemplative approach to composition runs through “The 7th Hand.” Every gripping movement sequel in seven parts flows seamlessly into the next, an effect made possible by Clever use of metric modulation by Wilkins. The pieces follow a metrical parable, each song linked by triplets, culminating in the frenetic free time of “Lift”.
“The 7th Hand” also explores the possibility of divine musical influence. The title originates from the symbolic nature of the number six as an expanse of human possibilities in the Bible. While writing the music for “The 7th Hand”, Wilkins reflected on the extent of divine intervention in musical experience and experimented with how this might manifest. As Wilkins describes in a projector of the Blue Note label, it meant his band reached a place where they were separated from a firmly dictated score, transcending all mental and spiritual barriers to become “a conduit for music as a higher power”. He envisioned the goal as achieving a “stream of consciousness” in music, where the feelings and ornamentation of music could “flow freely” through musicians without the structural barriers that come from a process traditional way of writing music.
This “stream of consciousness” approach is featured in the first propulsive track “Emanation” (2022). Assertive bass hits, sparse piano chords and floating drums lay the groundwork for Wilkins’ dynamic melody and improvisations. When he passes the spotlight to Thomas, the rising piano lines create an even more expansive feel and register. The end of “Emanation” highlights Wilkins’ ingenious use of metrical modulation, the last phrase turning into the first notes of the second track, “Don’t Break” (2022).
“Don’t Break”, with the Farafina Kan Percussion Ensemble, more channels Wilkins’ unconventional approach to musicality. Throughout the song, Wilkins and Thomas convey a simple, soothing melody to each other, creating a repetitive yet dynamic feel. Meanwhile, the layers of African percussion reinforces the cyclical feeling, with intertwining patterns generating momentum in the music and signaling that different voices come together as one.
At “Fugitive Ritual, Selah” Wilkins nods at Black spiritual spaces, thinking of areas where community and celebration occur. The track begins with bassist Daryl Johns in the foreground with bluesy bends and inflections. Wilkins enters with a pensive melody, complete with rustling drums and sensitive piano accompaniment. Halfway through, Sumbry shifts to an offbeat feel that evokes black church music.
“The 7th Hand” reaches its slowest moment on “Shadow” (2022). As the title suggests, “Shadow” has a dark sound, characterized by a slow-paced bass, a bluesy melody and beat-dragging drums. Wilkins was inspired by Wayne Shorter’s composition “Fall,” Miles Davis’ “Nefertiti” (1968), and the band’s loose playing, which interrupts the languid rhythm with flashes of ecstatic swing patterns and punctuated hits, recalls the exciting sound of Quintet of Miles Davis.
“Witness” (2022) brings in flautist Elena Pinderhughes, as well as Thomas playing on a mellotron. Wilkins, Thomas and Johns unite to maintain a steady rhythm, creating a rich, textured base over which Pinderhughes’ flute sings.
Pinderhughes’ contributions continue on “Lighthouse” (2022). The melodies of the previous songs reappear, reinforcing the synergy between the movements that defines “The 7th Hand”. As the beat picks up again, so does the energy, with Wilkins passionately improvising for much of the song.
If one move from “The 7th Hand” will prove polarizing for listeners, it’s undoubtedly the nearly 30 minutes of spastic improvisations, shifting meters and atonality featured on “Elevator” (2022). Wilkins did not intend “Lift” to be universally understood, drawing inspiration from the black code phrase. Speaking with Blue Note about the play’s relationship to black expression, Wilkins explains, “To the slave owner, Aunt Hester’s screams were just screams. But for the other slaves, these cries carried messages to flee, to sing, to run, to continue working – a host of things. So I was fascinated by that too – stream of consciousness or speaking in tongues carrying messages that listeners may not understand.
From the soothing sounds of “Fugitive Ritual, Selah” (2022) to the blazing leads of “Lift,” “The 7th Hand” delivers on the promise Immanuel Wilkins demonstrated on “Omega.” His imaginative approach to composition creates an effortless flowing work of art, taking listeners through a variety of moods. Just as the music shows the quartet coming together as one vessel, “The 7th Hand” draws the listener in to the point that they too become part of the music.