LABEL : BLUE NOTE
ALBUM IN A SENTENCE : JAZZ IMPROVISATION AND INSPIRATION WITHOUT COMPROMISE
For his second album, leading an exceptional quartet of pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Daryl Johns and drummer Kweku Sumbry, saxophonist and composer Immanuel Wilkins explores connections between the Pentecostal experience of church life and the power of jazz improvisation. The 7th Hand is an hour long suite comprising of seven parts, working towards the entirely free-form jam ‘Lift’. Wilkins says that, ‘I wanted to write a preparatory piece for my quartet to become vessels by the end of the piece, fully.’
As someone with an understanding of and an abiding concern for British Pentecostalism, I think it would come as a surprise to most white, working class Pentecostals to consider those connections. Twenty-First Century Christian music is mostly comprised of four-square, four chord everyman stadium rock anthems designed not to, at the very least, place a further layer of musical subculture on top of the subculture of church. Pentecostalism has chosen often struggled to resist the temptation to embrace forms of anti-intellectualism. The radical ‘no longer Jew or Greek’ equality of the gospel is reduced into ‘don’t get above yourself’ homilies, rather than enlarged into a celebration of how spiritual truth and revelation can come from anywhere, to anyone, regardless of class, race, gender, sexuality, age or status. However, Immanuel Wilkins has produced an album that grapples with what it means to be inspired without cliché or compromise.
The 7th Hand begins with ‘Emanation’, which combines the power of Coltrane inspired flowing runs, and classic acoustics, with contemporary phrasing and structure. Wilkins explains that ‘each movement [of The 7th Hand]chips away at the band’, stripping away layers of identity, culture and conscious thought. ‘Don’t Break’ ripples with the significance of African rhythms with the inclusion of the Farafina Kan Percussion Ensemble. The riff from ballad ‘Fugitive Ritual, Selah’ embeds itself deeply, helping to provide the track with a more conversational than performative feel. That is important in forging the connections between jazz and the Pentecostal experience. At their best, both are conversational; requiring the interplay of inspiration and interpretation, expecting and empowering each member of the body to contribute.
‘Shadow’ plays it cool, while the flute of Elena Pinderhughes brings extra textures to ‘Witness’ and ‘Lighthouse’. The final track, ‘Lift’, is the point which the preceding tracks have been working to reach. Akin to the moments in Pentecostal worship where convention breaks, and some start to prophesy, others pray in tongues, others sing their own song or listen or cry, and revelation emerges beyond the capabilities of individuals, ‘Lift’ is a clattering, rambunctious, ultimately uplifting improvisational explosion.
My personal belief is inspiration is when what is human and something else become joined up, when you can’t tell where one starts and the other ends. There is something more, but the humanity always still matters. Even on the day of Pentecost, Peter, full of Spirit, could quote chapter and verse from the book of Joel. Spiritual discernment leads towards the kind of careful reading that can discern, and cherish, the individual voices of Paul and John, Mary and Martha and see the inspiration in each.
Similarly, Immanuel Wilkins and his quartet are inspired but that ennobles, enlarges and deepens the personality and humanity of their work. That inspiration takes their ability and passion for interpreting the classic free and cool jazz sounds of the 1950s and 1960s and breathes fresh fire and sense through their instruments. The 7th Hand is a reminder that Spiritual music, inspired music, can be formed out of conversation but never compromise. That, is always good news.