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.