Immanuel Wilkins doesn’t write jazz for the sound, and he doesn’t play it for the awards or the crowds. His quartet plays to become something more than a band on a stage — they aim for something higher.
“I think music is a language, and I know that’s so corny,” Wilkins said. “But just as language is a vehicle, whether we’re talking about prayer or chanting, language is very much so bound up with divinity.”
Wilkins and his quartet — Micah Thomas on piano, Rick Rosato on bass and Kweku Sumbry on drums — will be performing in residence at the Queen Street Playhouse for five shows June 7 to June 10 as part of the Spoleto Festival USA. The show’s musical lineup will change across performances, including selections from Wilkins’ albums “The 7th Hand” and “Omega” as well as yet-unreleased compositions.
“The 7th Hand,” which earned one of the top spots for the New York Times critics’ jazz albums of the year in 2022, is deeply tied to Black life and spirituality. Wilkins said he’s looking forward to playing in Charleston in proximity to the culture to which “The 7th Hand” speaks.
“It’s always nice to feel a sense of community with the audience,” Wilkins said. “And I don’t just mean Black people or Black church people, but just anybody who I can feel the energy from the bandstand.”
Giovanni Russonello, the New York Times jazz critic who reviewed “The 7th Hand,” said Wilkins’ quartet was unique among his jazz contemporaries.
“What sets him apart, at least in 2023, is how many aspects of musical history — and how rich of an engagement with the present — he seems to be sifting through while sticking to a classic format,” Russonello said.
Other musicians who engage with funk and gospel traditions, like Robert Glasper and Lakeica Benjamin, tackle those themes more overtly by using the electric-acoustic lineup common to those genres, Russonello said. Wilkins’ use of an acoustic jazz quartet makes for a more subtle expression of his musical ideals.
“A lot of what makes us sound modern is the writing itself and our own personal experiences,” he said.
Wilkins said his favorite music comes from early John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Another contributing factor is that most of the quartet, including Wilkins himself, are more comfortable with acoustic instruments and low-tech equipment.
“I still use GarageBand, so I’m pretty primitive when it comes to how I deal with electronics,” Wilkins said.
But Wilkins isn’t afraid to branch out of the standard lineup of saxophone, piano, bass and drums. “The 7th Hand” features layered/ performances from flutist Elena Pinderhughes and the West African drum ensemble Farafina Kan. Wilkins said this kind of variety was essential to the musical health of the quartet.
“I’m always trying to look for holes in what is possible for the band and trying to fill those voids with my writing at all times,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins’ music is both textured and lush, sounding unstructured in one moment and deeply intentional the next, melding dissonance and harmony within the span of one phrase.
“Immanuel Wilkins is an incredibly good example of why jazz feels necessary,” Russonello said.
IF YOU PLAN TO GO: The Immanuel Wilkins quartet will play five shows at the Queen Street Playhouse from June 7 through June 10, with two performances on the final day. Tickets are $41.
Desi Gillespie is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.
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