A classic quartet in its prime

Immanuel Williams, whose quartet will perform at VJC on June 5, uses musical composition as a power tool to convey significant narratives, primarily about the Black experience

BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont Jazz Center will complete its 2020-21 livestream 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, performing ensemble for four years. Its members, each in his early to mid-20s, have been touring, recording, and creating together since their teens.

The musicians are Immanuel Wilkins (compositions and alto saxophone), Micah Thomas (piano), Daryl Johns (bass) and Kweku Sumbry (drums).

The quartet's debut recording, Omega, released on Blue Note and produced by Jason Moran, has received numerous “best of” awards, including NPR's Best Debut Jazz Album of 2020, and it also topped The New York Times' Best Jazz Albums of 2020.

Other accolades showered upon Wilkins include Best New Talent of 2020 by Musica Jazz, 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 charting into new territory with a sense of lyricism that is reminiscent of the Jazz greats.”

One could say that Wilkins' destiny, as the son of encouraging, music-loving parents, was to play the saxophone. As a 12 year old, he played in a festival with Tony Williams and was twice a 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 him to Don Was, the president of Blue Note Records, and the album Omega is the result of that propitious connection.

Wilkins joined Moran for his “In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959” tour and has since worked with a diverse 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 vibraphonist Joel Ross's 2019 Blue Note critically acclaimed debut, KingMaker.

Those experiences of sharing the stage with jazz masters inspired Wilkins, through performance and education, to become a positive force in music and society. He is an adjunct professor at New York University and the New School, and he has given clinics at Oberlin, Yale, and other universities.

As a composer, Wilkins explores ways to achieve a profound spiritual and emotional impact through music. His website says that he “aspires to bring people together through his art.” He uses musical composition as a power tool to convey significant narratives, primarily about the Black experience.

This vision has led him to receive commissions from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, the Jazz Gallery artist Residency Commissions program, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, and others.

For example, in March, Wilkins' group presented a commissioned piece, “Blues Blood/Black Future,” at Roulette Intermedium in New York City.

This project “navigate[d] the spiritual and cultural landscape of Black America” by conveying the story of Daniel Hamm, one of the Harlem Six. Hamm was an innocent teen who was falsely accused of murder in the Fruit Stand Riot of 1965 and was beaten while in police 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 things ancestral/generational.”

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In a recent Zoom interview with jazz blogger Marty Duda, Wilkins discussed the premise of his new recording, Omega. He said that he was trying to come up with an audible representation of what Black identity sounds like to him.

Wilkins said that, as a Black man, he experiences two tiers of existence simultaneously: one that is made up of “super-horrific material that is terribly graphic and explicit,” and another Black experience that is “super-hilarious, sublime, and beautiful.”

“Our everyday lives deal with both tiers in conjunction with each other,” he said. “So I'm trying to create music that audibly 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's title, Omega, literally means “the end.” Wilkins says he is using 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 true liberation look like?”

This dichotomy of experiences is explored in Wilkins' work, which revolves upon the contrasts of beauty and pain, love and injustice, that he experiences as a Black man.

In the end, he says he is an optimist.

In an interview with musician, record producer, and record executive Don Was, Wilkins says, “I have gratitude for the newer generation,” adding that “we do possess the ideals to change the world socially, politically, musically. It's always the youngest generation that takes the reins.”

He went on to say that “music has power and a large influence that [our society] can't ignore.”

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The pianist of the quartet is Micah Thomas, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio. He started playing songs on the piano by ear at the age of 2, and shortly afterward he started private piano training.

In 2015, Thomas received the Jerome L. Greene Fellowship from the Juilliard School and received his master of music degree in 2020. He is now performing in venues throughout the city both as a leader of his own groups and 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 2018 Newport Jazz Festival. In June 2020, Thomas released his first album, Tide, to positive reviews.

The son of drummer Steve Johns and saxophonist Debbie Keefe Johns, bassist Daryl Johns attends the Manhattan School of Music. His first experience playing as a bassist in an ensemble was at the Vermont Jazz Center Summer Jazz Workshop in his father's combo.

At the age of 13, Johns was a semifinalist in the 2009 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Jazz Bass Competition. T.S. Monk wrote, “Daryl represents everything this music is about; his respect for the history belies his youth.”

Since then, his many awards and citations include being named WBGO's “Jazz Star of Tomorrow,” multiple Student Music Awards from DownBeat, soloist awards from the Mingus Festival, and his placement as a 2013 YoungArts Finalist.

Johns, featured in Bass Quarterly in 2013, toured with Wallace Roney Quintet and performed a week at the Blue Note in New York City 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 vocalist Macy Gray.

The quartet's drummer is Kweku Sumbry, a multi-percussionist from Washington, D.C., who is grounded 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, an intergenerational professional West African Drum and Dance Company based in D.C.

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'm coming from a folkloric tradition where we're literally playing for people who are dancing.”

“So with my own music, I'm always thinking of dance,” he continues. “We're going to play a lot of my music, which brings together many 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, and Turkey and throughout 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 others.

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The Immanuel Wilkins Quartet clearly proves that the future of jazz is healthy and in good hands.

Don Was, president of Blue Note Records, says of their debut effort: “I think you have created a classic album that's going to mean something to a lot of people for decades to come.”

Tune in to the performance to hear for yourself a classic quartet in its prime.

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