BRATTLEBORO – The Vermont Jazz VSEnter will end its 2020-2021 live broadcast season with a concert by the highly acclaimed Immanuel Wilkins Quartet on Saturday, June 5 at 8 p.m.
This young group has been a solid and successful group for four years. Its members, each in their early to mid-twenties, have toured, recorded and created together since their teenage years.
The musicians are Immanuel Wilkins (compositions and alto saxophone), Micah Thomas (piano), Daryl Johns (bass) and Kweku Sumbry (drums).
The quartet’s first recording, Omega, released on Blue Note and produced by Jason Moran, received numerous “best of” awards, including NPR’s Best First Jazz Album of 2020, and it also topped The New York Times‘Best Jazz Albums of 2020.
Other accolades given to Wilkins include Musica Jazz’s Best New Talent of 2020 and a LetterOne Rising Stars Jazz Award, where he “impressed the jury with a high level of sophistication and maturity in his playing. [Wilkins] respectfully reflects various musical influences in his performance while exploring new territory with a sense of lyricism reminiscent of the greats of jazz.
You could say that Wilkins’ fate, as the son of encouraging parents and music lovers, was to play the saxophone. At age 12, he performed at a festival with Tony Williams and was a two-time member of the Grammy All-Star High School Band.
He moved to New York City from the Philadelphia area in 2015 to attend the Juilliard School and was mentored by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Jason Moran.
Moran recommended it to Don Was, the president of Blue Note Records, and to the album. Omega is the result of this auspicious connection.
Wilkins joined Moran on his “In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959” tour and has since worked with a wide range of artists including Solange Knowles, Kenny Barron, Gretchen Parlato, the Count Basie Orchestra, Wynton and Delfeayo Marsalis , Orrin Evans, Jonathan Blake, Nasheet Waits, Aaron Parks, Gerald Clayton, Lalah Hathaway and Bob Dylan.
Wilkins ‘saxophone can be heard on critically acclaimed vibraphonist Joel Ross’ debut 2019 Blue Note, KingMaker.
These stage-sharing experiences with jazz masters inspired Wilkins, through performance and education, to become a positive force in music and society. He is an assistant professor at New York University and the New School, and has given clinics at Oberlin, Yale, and other universities.
As a composer, Wilkins explores ways to achieve deep spiritual and emotional impact through music. His website says he “aspires to bring people together through his art”. He uses musical composition as a powerful tool to convey meaningful narratives, primarily about the black experience.
This vision led him to receive commissions from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, the Jazz Gallery Artist Residency Commission program, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, etc.
For example, in March, Wilkins’ band performed a commissioned play, “Blues Blood / Black Future,” at Roulette Intermedium in New York.
This project “navigate[d] the spiritual and cultural landscape of black America ”by telling the story of Daniel Hamm, one of the Harlem Six. Hamm was an innocent teenager who was falsely accused of murder in the 1965 Fruit Stand riot and was beaten while in custody.
Wilkins makes connections between current events and the civil unrest of the 1960s using the “blues” [as] a symbol of radical optimism in the face of adversity and blood [as] a symbol of all that is ancestral / generational. “
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Irecent na Zoom interview with jazz blogger Marty Duda, Wilkins discussed the premise of his new recording, Omega. He said he was trying to find an audible representation of what black identity looks like to him.
Wilkins said that as a black man he simultaneously experiences two levels of existence: one made up of “super horrible material which is awfully graphic and self-explanatory”, and another black experience which is “super hilarious, sublime. and beautiful.”
“Our daily life deals with both levels in conjunction with each other,” he said. “So I try to create music that sounds like that. It’s audibly grotesque but also really beautiful, sublime and heavenly.
The name of the album and the names of all the compositions reflect this theme. For example, the album title, Omega, literally means “the end”. Wilkins says he uses the word “Omega” as a metaphor to represent “the end of an era.”
He asks, “What does the end of police brutality look like, the end of prejudice, the end of racial oppression?” What does real liberation look like? “
This dichotomy of experiences is explored in Wilkins’ work, which revolves around the contrasts of beauty and pain, love and injustice, which he experiences as a black man.
In the end, he says he is optimistic.
In an interview with musician, record producer and record director Don Was, Wilkins said, “I have gratitude for the new generation,” adding that “we have the ideals to change the world socially, politically and musically. It is always the youngest generation that takes the reins. “
He went on to say that “music has a power and a great influence which [our society] can not ignore. “
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The pianist of the quartet is Micah Thomas, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio. He started playing piano songs by ear at the age of 2, and soon after began private piano training.
In 2015, Thomas received the Jerome L. Greene Fellowship from The Juilliard School and received his Masters of Music in 2020. He now performs in venues across the city both as a leader of his own bands and as a as a sideman for such luminaries as Joel Ross, Lage Lund, Giveton Gelin, Melissa Aldana, Etienne Charles, Gabe Schnider, Harish Raghavan, Stacy Dillard and Jure Pukl.
He also appeared as a guest with Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 2017 alongside Sullivan Fortner, Aaron Diehl and Joel Wenhardt, and as a solo performer at the Newport Jazz Festival 2018. In June 2020, Thomas releases his first album, Tide, to positive reviews.
The son of drummer Steve Johns and saxophonist Debbie Keefe Johns, bassist Daryl Johns attends Manhattan School of Music. His first experience as an ensemble bassist was at the Vermont Jazz Center Summer Jazz Workshop in his father’s combo.
At the age of 13, Johns was a semi-finalist at the 2009 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Jazz Bass Competition. TS Monk wrote, “Daryl is everything this music is about; his respect for history belies his youth.
Since then, his numerous awards and citations have included the title “Jazz Star of Tomorrow” by WBGO, several student music awards from DownBeat, Mingus Festival soloist award, and his placement as a 2013 YoungArts finalist.
Johns, featured in Quarterly bass in 2013, he toured with Wallace Roney Quintet and performed for a week at the Blue Note in New York with guitarist Larry Coryell and his trio. Other high profile gigs include tours with Lenny White and Curtis Fuller and a jazz-influenced album with singer Macy Gray.
The quartet’s drummer is Kweku Sumbry, a multi-percussionist from Washington, DC, steeped in the traditions of the djembe orchestra; he also builds djembes from shells he receives from West Africa.
He began his studies as a toddler under the tutelage of his uncle, Mahiri Fadjimba Keita-Edwards, founder of Farafina Kan, a professional intergenerational West African drum and dance company based in DC.
He attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the New School in New York.
In an interview with the Jazz Gallery, Kweku sums up his approach: “Musically, I come from a folk tradition where we literally play for people who dance.”
“So with my own music, I always think of dancing,” he continues. “We’re going to play a lot of my music, which brings together a lot of my favorite styles and sounds. Think Fela Kuti meets Steve Coleman […] John Coltrane meets James Brown. “
Kweku has performed in Guinea, Senegal, Ghana, Australia, New Zealand, Amsterdam, Turkey and across the United States. He has performed or recorded with Ambrose Akinmusire, Dayna Stephens, Yosvany Terry, Cyrus Chestnut, Reggie Workman, Harish Raghavan, Jure Pukl and many more.
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The Imanual WIlkins Quartet clearly proves that the future of jazz is healthy and in good hands.
Don Was, president of Blue Note Records, said of their first effort: “I think you’ve created a classic album that’s going to mean something to a lot of people for decades to come.”
Listen to the show to hear for yourself a classical quartet at its peak.
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