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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, March 3, 2024

On ‘The 7th Hand,’ Immanuel Wilkins seeks divine inspiration

Although he is only in his early 20s, saxophonist and composer Immanuel Wilkins has already risen to prominence as one of jazz’s brightest stars.His debut album, “Omega” (2020), released on the famed Blue Note record label and earned a No. 1 spot on The New York Times Best Jazz Albums of 2020 list. On his sophomore album “The 7th Hand,” which was released on 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 and contemplative approach to composition runs through “The 7th Hand.” Each movement of the gripping seven-part suite flows seamlessly into the next, an effect enabled by Wilkins’ clever use of metric modulation. The pieces follow a metric parabola, with each song related through triplets, culminating in the frenetic free time of “Lift.”

“The 7th Hand” also explores the possibility of divine musical influence. The title originates in the symbolic nature of the number six as the extent of human possibility within the Bible. In writing the music for “The 7th Hand,” Wilkins pondered the extent of divine intervention in the musical experience and experimented with how this might manifest. As Wilkins describes in aspotlight from the Blue Note label, this meant his band reaching a place where they were separate from a firmly dictated score, transcending all mental and spiritual barriers to become “a conduit for the music as a higher power.” He envisioned the goal as achieving a “stream of consciousness” in the music, where the feelings and ornamentation of the music could “flow freely” through the musicians without the structural barriers that come from a traditional music-writing process.

​This “stream of consciousness” approach features in the propulsive first track “Emanation” (2022). Assertive bass hits, sparse piano chords and floating drums lay the groundwork for Wilkins’ buoyant melody and improvisations to flow freely. When he passes the spotlight to Thomas, soaring piano lines create an even more expansive feel and register. The end of “Emanation” highlights Wilkins’ ingenious use of metric modulation, with the last phrase morphing into the first notes of the second track, “Don’t Break” (2022).

“Don’t Break,” featuring the Farafina Kan Percussion Ensemble, again channels Wilkins’ unconventional approach to musicianship. Throughout the song, Wilkins and Thomas pass a simple, calming melody between each other, creating a repetitive yet dynamic feel. Meanwhile, the layers of African percussion strengthen the cyclical feeling, with interwoven patterns generating momentum in the music and signaling different voices coming together as one.

On “Fugitive Ritual, Selah,” Wilkins nods to Black spiritual spaces, thinking of the areas where community and celebration occur. The piece begins with bassist Daryl Johns at the forefront with bluesy bends and inflections. Wilkins enters with a pensive melody, complemented by rustling drums and sensitive piano accompaniment.Halfway through, Sumbry switches to a backbeat 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 slowly walking bass, bluesy melody and drums that drag the time. Wilkins took inspiration from Wayne Shorter’s composition “Fall,” from Miles Davis' "Nefertiti" (1968) and the band’s loose playing, which interrupts the languorous pace with flashes of ecstatic swing patterns and punctuated hits, recalls the exciting sound of Miles Davis’ quintet.

“Witness” (2022) brings in flutist Elena Pinderhughes, along with Thomas playing on a mellotron. Wilkins, Thomas and Johns unify in keeping a steady pace, creating a rich, textured foundation on top of which Pinderhughes’ flute sings.

Pinderhughes’ contributions continue onto “Lighthouse” (2022). Melodies from previous tracks reappear, reinforcing the intermovement synergy that defines “The 7th Hand.” As the pace again rises, so does the energy, with Wilkins improvising passionately for much of the song.

​If any movement from “The 7th Hand” will prove polarizing to listeners, it is without a doubt the nearly 30 minutes of spastic improvisations, shifting meters and atonality featured on “Lift” (2022). Wilkins did not intend for “Lift” to be universally understood, drawing inspiration from Black coded expression. Speaking with Blue Note about the piece’s relation to Black expression, Wilkins explains that “To the slave owner, Aunt Hester’s screams were just screams. But to the other slaves, those screams carried messages to flee, to sing, to run, to keep working — a host of things. So, I was fascinated with 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 runs on “Lift,” "The 7th Hand" delivers on the promise Immanuel Wilkins demonstrated on “Omega.” His imaginative approach to composition creates an effortlessly flowing piece of art, taking listeners through a variety of moods. Just as the music shows the quartet coming together as one vessel, “The 7th Hand” pulls the listener in to the point that they too become part of the music.

Summary Immanuel Wilkins’ imaginative approach to composition on “The 7th Hand” creates an effortlessly flowing piece of art, pulling the listener in to the point that they too become part of the music.
5 Stars