Starting at the End



Blue Note

As this review is being written, the streets of America are teeming with people of all races protesting the police killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks and proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. Immanuel Wilkins made Omega before those deaths occurred, but he did not lack for other examples from the nightmare of America’s racial history. Two tracks subtitled “An American Tradition” are “Ferguson” and “Mary Turner.” Turner was eight months pregnant when she was lynched, upside down, in Georgia in 1918.

Such subject matter is a lot to take on for a 22-year-old alto saxophone player. Wilkins is ready. Jason Moran, who produced Omega, says something true: “Immanuel … blends traditions in a way that only his generation knows how to do.” Wilkins is neither straight-ahead nor avant-garde. He operates in a fertile new zone that is both. His lyrical extremity goes back to Charlie Parker and forward to Ornette Coleman and beyond. His chops are electric. His tonal range extends from mellifluous and sensuous to searing and raw, often in the same solo.

The track for Mary Turner is a remarkable act of the imagination. In four minutes, Wilkins portrays the atrocity with almost unbearable vividness, from Turner’s attempts to escape (in circling saxophone figures) to her terror (in louder saxophone calls over threatening drums) to the death throes of Turner and her unborn child (in hoarse saxophone screams and violent ensemble eruptions).

All of Omega’s rich material was written by Wilkins; his pieces are carefully ordered but contain openings for spontaneous rampant invention. The album’s centerpiece is a four-part suite. “The Key,” “Saudade,” “Eulogy,” and “Guarded Heart” move across many modes of emotion, from rapt through-composed contemplations to wild celebrations to graceful melodic unfoldings to jolts of passion.

Wilkins’ impressive young collaborators are pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Daryl Johns, and drummer Kweku Sumbry. Remember their names.

Omega is the most important debut jazz recording in years. THOMAS CONRAD


Suite: April 2020


When the novel coronavirus pandemic swept Europe, Brad Mehldau and his family sheltered in place at his home in the Netherlands. A month of lockdown later, he had watched the virus ravage the world, killing hundreds of thousands and putting thousands of his colleagues out of work as concerts and club dates were canceled and tours were postponed until … well, until who knew (or in fact, three months later, knows) when. At this point, many musicians took to social media platforms and online concerts to stay sharp. Mehldau composed a suite, April 2020, which he recorded in a solo piano setting for Nonesuch and released in special-edition signed vinyl copies, with proceeds going to the COVID-19 Musicians Fund.

The suite is a 12-part, 31-minute work that offers mostly muted, introspective music. It is perhaps a reflection of his place of shelter; had he been in America, it’s likely that he might have raged more at the incompetence of political leaders. Titles like “Waking Up,” “Stepping Outside,” and “The Day Moves By” suggest a narrative movement through the sense of confusion of this moment. Others like “Keeping Distance,” “Remembering Before All This,” and “Yearning” reflect the specifics of the crisis. The plaintive, wary mood is broken by soulful overtones of “Family Harmony.” To round out the recording, Mehldau included three covers, Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” and the Jerome Kern/B.G. DeSylva chestnut “Look for the Silver Lining,” each putting a hopeful coda on music that in its own subdued way captures the dismay, horror, and uneasy trust of life during this cataclysm. MARTIN JOHNSON


Sun of Goldfinger (Congratulations to You)


It’s too bad the name Ten Years After was already taken by guitarist Alvin Lee and his Woodstock-era rock trio, because it would’ve fit Sun of Goldfinger (guitarist David Torn, saxophonist Tim Berne, drummer Ches Smith) to a tee. That trio’s self-released, digital-only new live effort was primarily recorded at features only three extended tracks.

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