As much as we try to dodge the bias of ageism, some sense of wonder underscores the experience of Omega, Immanuel Wilkins’ striking debut release. How is it that the alto saxophonist-composer-bandleader has marshaled such a strong, true and mature artistic statement at age 22? What’s more, Wilkins wrote the centralizing four-part suite on the album at age 15.
For back story, the church-grounded teen prodigy went on to study at Juilliard and became a coveted sideman for leaders such as Joel Ross, Aaron Parks, Wynton Marsalis and Jason Marsalis, the last of whom offers sagely production guidance on Omega. Despite his youth, Wilkins has led this mighty, empathetic quartet — pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Daryl Johns and drummer Kweku Sumbry — for four years, forging a lived-in identity that adds to Omega’s cogent firepower and groupthink intelligence.
Wilkins clearly has a vision, at once serious and sensuous. Omega teems with rage and reflection, meditative musicality and expressive intensity, and a sturdy technical bravura which invariably serves the integrity of the compositional and conceptual whole rather than indulging a blowing session hubris. On the elegiac “Ferguson — An American Tradition” and the alternately turbulent and melodically gutsy “Mary Turner — An American Tradition” (about a savage 1918 lynching which inspired anti-lynching legislation), social and racial issues enter into Wilkins’ contextual scenario, albeit through a strictly instrumental filter. His melancholically sweet ballad “The Dreamer” pays homage to early NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson.
The engaging “Warriors” opens the album with its hypnotic motif as intro-outro, detouring briefly from the purely acoustic quartet setting into an echo-flecked segue, an emotional gear-shift moment. History and idiom are in flux, and in hand. At times, Wilkins’ writing and ensemble persona recall the flowing energies of Keith Jarrett’s late-’70s “Scandinavian” quartet with Jan Garbarek, whereas other references update Afro-centric, post-free and hard-bop modalities.
“Omega,” an apt closer, is a dynamically rangy mini-epic with a suspended finale suggesting more to come. Much more: Omega holds promise as one of 2020’s most significant debuts.