A return to venues, guided by 'The 7th Hand'
This year's most powerfully transporting jazz album got its hooks into me before I'd even tabulated last year's list. I'm not sure that has ever happened to me before, but The 7th Hand, the phenomenal sophomore effort by alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, impressed early and often: Whenever I'd return to it over the course of the year, the album felt enduringly mysterious, sustaining and alive. Harmony Holiday, who penned its liner notes, praised Wilkins in our 2021 Year in Review by copping a term from the late critic Greg Tate: "spiritual genius."
Wilkins, who grew up playing piano for a Holiness-Pentecostal congregation in the Philadelphia area, distilled his metaphysics into the music on The 7th Hand. His deeply impressive band (with Micah Thomas on piano, Daryl Johns on bass and Kweku Sumbry on drums) excels in the kind of intuitive grace and dynamism required to distinguish a young crew in this lineage. But what sets them further apart is the consuming fervor of their commitment to the moment, and to each other: a glowing, intangible synonymy with the John Coltrane Quartet, among select others. I hear that quality all over the album, but it was something else to feel it rattling a room — as I did one evening in late January of this year, when Wilkins played an album-release show at PhilaMOCA, co-presented by Ars Nova Workshop and WRTI and later featured by Jazz Night in America.
That event was among the first of its kind I'd experienced in the pandemic era: a crowded, swaying fellowship, wildly euphoric even from behind a KN95 mask. It was an early harbinger of a year that saw bands back out on tour, venues reopening their doors. After the severe isolation of 2020 and the halting progress of 2021, I joined a returning horde in 2022, reaping my bliss at major festivals like Newport Jazz and Big Ears; in packed clubs like The Village Vanguard and Ars Nova Workshop's stylish new home, Solar Myth; and in spaces like National Sawdust in Brooklyn, where guitarist Mary Halvorson premiered her chamber inventions, taken from an engrossing pair of albums.
Without going out of my way, I caught Immanuel Wilkins in performance several more times over the course of the year — as far afield as Rotterdam, at the massive North Sea Jazz Festival, and as close to home as the Philly suburbs, at the Ardmore Music Hall. Wilkins, who turned 24 this summer, also paid a visit last month to a class I teach at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. Among the questions I had for him: How did it really feel for a touring artist as the music industry revved back up in 2022? "What are the stress points?" I asked, thinking about the many acts that canceled or curtailed their tours in the face of a bleak financial reality, among other problems.
"I didn't go on tour as a leader before 2020," Wilkins first stipulated. "So I only know post-COVID touring. But there are some big issues with what touring is, for all of us. It's not good for the body, one. It's very rigorous, to the point where I don't know if it's truly sustainable. We went on five or six tours this year — and I'm tired." The upside, he hastened to add, was that he had the good fortune to be out on the road with some of his best friends, a circumstance he recognizes as a rare privilege.
As for the clamoring enthusiasm among audiences — that air of ardent wish fulfillment, which I've witnessed in so many different circumstances this year — it clearly registered with him. "That feels amazing," Wilkins said. "It feels great to play for people who want to be out, who want to see the music. One of the most beautiful things about being a musician is that feeling of, like, 1,000 people, 2,000 people, all projecting their energy on four people on the bandstand." My thoughts ran back to that night early in the year, when the crowd was a lot smaller but the transfer of energy no less intense.
"The energy of the room, it's like going into this portal," Wilkins went on, marveling. "That's something that I missed during the pandemic, and now, it feels like people are hungry again. The room has a power again."
Our year-end package from NPR Music, The Story of Jazz in 2022, which we will publish this week, could be understood in one sense as a testament to that power, and everything that went into its restoration. Harmony Holiday reflects on some of the vital stories that hover around the edges of the room, offstage or backstage. Marcus J. Moore attests to the breakout success of the category-exploding keyboardist Julius Rodriguez, drawing in part from a few tantalizing in-person encounters. And Larry Blumenfeld reflects on the groundbreaking year enjoyed by composer Tyshawn Sorey, whose Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) was an immersive revelation in its staging at the Park Avenue Armory this fall.
In other words, this is neither a comprehensive survey nor a definitive statement, and you can look elsewhere for the official stirrings of critical consensus. But we'll also be sharing some of our other highlights on record: moments that took us someplace, even as they rooted us to the spot.
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