By Kharisma McIlwaine
Philadelphia has always been recognized for having an incredible wealth of musicians. Upper Darby native Immanuel Wilkins is one of those musicians. Wilkins, an alto saxophonist and composer, has been fully immersed in the Philadelphia music world for quite some time. His relationship with the Philadelphia music world was enriched further as a resident and now alumnus of the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Jazz Residency program and its Creative Music Program for Jazz.
Wilkins received critical acclaim and success with his debut album “Omega”, which was named the #1 jazz album of 2020 by The New York Times. Wilkins continues to explore and honor his love for music as a form of expression in his sophomore album “The 7th Hand.” Wilkins is returning to the Kimmel Cultural Campus to perform music from “The 7th Hand”. Wilkins spoke with the SUN about his musical journey, his excitement to return to Philadelphia and the messages he hopes to convey through his music.
Wilkins began playing music at just three years old. His journey with the saxophone began when he was in third grade.
“I started on violin, piano and then the saxophone. My friend played the saxophone and was a little older than me. He told me I could get in the band earlier if I had my own instrument. So, I badgered my parents about buying me a saxophone… that’s how that got started.” Wilkins said.
Wilkins natural ability and the realization that he could have a viable career as a musician sparked his desire to pursue music professionally.
“The moments were when I realized that people did that and made a living off of solely playing music. I had teachers growing up, but I knew that they always had other jobs. It wasn’t until I saw people who did it purely as a full-time gig, that I realized it was possible.” Wilkins said. “I also thought about teaching, but when I realized you could sustain yourself by creating and playing with people, I figured that’s what I wanted to do mainly. Once that happened, it was like this is what I’m going to do.”
Wilkins went on to fine tune his musical skills at Upper Darby High School before moving to New York to attend The Julliard School.
“Julliard was great! The one thing I always tell people about with Julliard is that everybody was just amazing… everyone could play.” Wilkins said. “There weren’t people who could afford the tuition, so they got into the school”, he shared. “My program was super small. It was only 30 to 40 people in the jazz department. You pretty much know everyone in the school, it’s a tight knit group and there’s a lot of room for collaboration because you’re in close proximity to all the other disciplines.”
Jazz in many ways chose Wilkins, who leaned into the complex artform right away.
“I think it came with the instrument. Once I started playing the saxophone, I was playing more jazz than anything else. I was studying classical music and I knew I needed classical music as a means to develop Western technique, but for the most part I grew up hearing Black music around the house… so I didn’t choose it. I didn’t really have to make a choice.”
Wilkins has gone on to be recognized for his expressive and multifaceted musical compositions. His debut album “Omega” was named the #1 jazz album of 2020 by The New York Times. “Omega” also served as the world’s introduction to his quartet which includes Micah Thomas on piano, Daryl Johns on bass, and Kweku Sumbry on drums.
“We had been playing together for about four or five years as a band at that point. A lot of it was just picking the repertoire we felt most comfortable with.” Wilkins said. “I write a lot of music based off of my spiritual practices, growing up in church — and also Black aesthetics, and Black critical theorists. I feel like my music exists kind of in the in-between those things. The record ended up materializing itself into a hybrid between really beautiful material and really grotesque material… thinking about how Black folks exist in everyday life and what we carry on our backs.”
Wilkins continues to delve into the art of storytelling through song while exploring new concepts and structures in his sophomore album “The 7th Hand.”
“I think in a way it’s very different from the first record. The only thing that transfers over is that there is a small 30-minute suite on the first record. The second record, the whole thing is a suite. I think I kind of gravitate towards the mode of writing fuller, longer bodies of work versus writing individual songs. My first record was really song based. The second record has more of a wholistic vibe going on.” Wilkins said.
In addition to two successful albums, Wilkins can also add to his list of accomplishments performing at NPR’s Tiny Desk.
“The NPR team was really supportive and were open to whatever I wanted to do.
I also collaborated with a great sculptor Kennedy Yanko. It was just a good time. We played three songs and we taped all day. We did about four or five takes a song and it was fun. I’m happy to be part of that cast of people that have done Tiny Desk.” Wilkins said.
As Wilkins continues to perform at prestigious venues throughout the country, in a true full circle moment he shared his excitement about returning to The Kimmel Cultural Campus for his upcoming performance.
“The Kimmel has always been super supportive of what I was trying to do. I remember when I got that residency commission, I wrote a piece based on my time living in Philly. I was working with a filmmaker, David Dempewolf and a photographer, Rog Walker. We were documenting a lot of space making places in Philadelphia that were significant to me and Philadelphia at large. The residency was supposed to be four concerts, but we only did the first two or three. We never got to do the final premiere because of COVID,” he explained. “This is the first time we’re able to get back in the space since then. The Kimmel has always been home to me. Even before the residency, I was a part of the Creative Music Program when I was in elementary school, middle school and high school. I quite literally grew up in The Kimmel Center.”
Wilkins added, “This performance is going to be a mix of old music, some new music. It’s experimental and challenging. It’s also warm, inviting and a communal experience. I’m just looking forward to communing with my Philly family.”
To support Immanuel Wilkins and his musical journey visit his website www.immanuelwilkins.com and follow him on IG @immanuel.wilkins. Immanuel Wilkins will be performing at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Perelman Theater on Thursday, April 6th at 7:30pm. To find out more and to purchase tickets www.kimmelculturalcampus.org.
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