Immanuel Wilkins is a jazz saxophonist, composer, and bandleader from Upper Darby in greater Philadelphia. He is possessed of a round, warm, emotionally powerful tone, informed not only by the jazz tradition but gospel's as well. Since his late teens, he has been a first-call touring sideman for a remarkable variety of artists who include Jason Moran, Gretchen Parlato, Solange Knowles, Bob Dylan, and Wynton Marsalis. Though the alto is his primary horn, he is also adept on soprano and tenor. In the studio he's worked as a sideman with bassists Ben Wolfe and Harish Raghavan, vibraphonist Joel Ross, serves as an altoist in Orrin Evans & the Captain Black Big Band. In 2020, Wilkins released the Moran-produced Omega, his leader debut for Blue Note.
Wilkins was raised in Upper Darby, about a mile outside Philadelphia to music-loving parents. He began playing violin at age three, switched to piano a couple of years later, and in third grade, the saxophone. His rationale for moving over to the horn was that he'd heard you could join band a year early if you had your own instrument — he told his mother that when asking for a horn. Impressed by his logic as well as his musical appetite and ability, she bought him one. Wilkins honed his skills playing in church, as well as studying in programs dedicated to teaching jazz at the city's storied Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts. At age 12, he was selected to play the "Star Spangled Banner" at a Philadelphia Eagles game. He studied music in high school but also at the Kimmel Center, where, in addition to its regular instructors, they played host to top-tier jazz musicians including drummer Mickey Roker, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, saxophonist Steve Coleman, and Sun Ra Arkestra bandleader Marshall Allen, who offered workshops and classes. Wilkins moved to New York City in 2015 to attend the Juilliard School, where he earned his bachelor's degree. There he studied with Bruce Williams and Joe Temperley. In the city, he met trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire, who acted as both mentor and facilitator in helping Wilkins navigate the jazz scene. He also met Moran, who admired the young saxophonist's sound and immediately grasped his potential. Moran took the young saxophonist on tour playing his tribute show, "In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959," a series of live performances honoring the legacy of the great jazz pianist.
Along with his work as a musician, Wilkins is an instructor. In addition to teaching at NYU and the New School, he's also taught and/or given master classes and clinics at Oberlin, Yale, and the Kimmel Center. He formed his own quartet while attending Juilliard with pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Daryl Johns, and drummer Kweku Sumbry. The group worked in New York, backed singers and other soloists, and performed original material. In 2018, Wilkins began working with vibraphonist Joel Ross and was featured prominently on his Blue Note debut, KingMaker, the following year. In 2019, Wilkins and Ross, along with Thomas and Sumbry, also worked with bassist/arranger Harish Raghavan on his Whirlwind Recordings debut, Calls for Action. Later in the year, Wilkins signed a record deal with Blue Note.
Entering Sear Sound Studio in New York, with his quartet and Moran as producer, Wilkins cut Omega, a collection of 11 originals, as his debut leader album. The date's music, as evidenced by the April pre-release single "Warriors," was informed by history, the civil rights movement, and the spiritual teachings of the black church, as well as the continuing struggle for racial justice in America. The latter is directly signified by two tunes on the set: "Ferguson — An American Tradition," and "Mary Turner — An American Tradition." Omega was released in August of 2020. ~ Thom Jurek