Coming up in the Philadelphia area, Immanuel Wilkins got his musical training not only in jazz circles but also at the Prayer Chapel Church of God, where he played piano. The active feedback loop of a worship service, with its pulsating cycles of call and response, remained a vivid sense memory for Wilkins as he moved on to some fairly elite institutions — notably the Juilliard School, from which he graduated in 2019, and Blue Note Records, which released his debut album, Omega, the following year.
The 7th Hand, his second album for the label, synthesizes lessons learned at the altar and on the bandstand, with a keen awareness of African-American cultural history. "I was thinking a lot about being a vessel," Wilkins told Shaun Brady of the Philadelphia Inquirer several days before this album-release concert in his hometown. "About getting into a super Zen space where it feels like you're not the one making the music. I wanted to write a body of work that triggered that experience."
Working with his superbly intuitive band — Micah Thomas on piano, Daryl Johns on bass, Kweku Sumbry on drums — Wilkins delivered on that promise at PhilaMOCA late last month. Presented by Ars Nova Workshop in partnership with WRTI, the concert felt like a breathless outpouring, balanced on a pivot point of surrender and control. This 35-minute window onto the performance captures several highlights: the deep sway of "Don't Break," propelled by Sumbry's assured polyrhythms; the imploring gospel tonalities of "Fugitive Ritual, Selah," which elicits a brilliantly paced solo by Thomas; the ferocious intensity of "Lighthouse," which finds Wilkins steering his band through dark, choppy seas.
Wilkins has created a work of sustained power in The 7th Hand, using methods ranging from classical motivic development to the ecstatic cry of the Pentecostal church. What grounds the entire piece is a commitment to the present moment, with an unspoken conviction that some truth will come flowing through.
Immanuel Wilkins, alto sax; Micah Thomas, piano; Daryl Johns, Bass; Kweku Sumbry, drums.
All songs by Immanuel Wilkins
- Don't Break
- Fugitive Ritual, Selah
Producers: Josh Jackson, Mark Christman; Video: Christopher McDonald, Danie Harris, Jeremy McDonald; Additional Video Editing: Nickolai Hammar; Audio Engineer: Tyler McClure, Paul Marchesani; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Senior Producer: Nikki Birch, Alex Ariff; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand; Senior Director of NPR Music: Keith Jenkins.