A Striking Ballad by 23-Year-Old Saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins in Tribute to James Weldon Johnson

Immanuel Wilkins Quartet: bassist Daryl Johns, drummer Kweku Sumbry, saxophonist Wilkins, and pianist Micah ThomasRog Walter/Blue Note Records

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Take just four minutes to start the week with “Dreamer,” an impressionistic ballad honoring civil rights activist and artist James Weldon Johnson, born 150 years ago. The song is by 23-year-old saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, nominated days ago for an NAACP award for outstanding jazz album. It’s an instrumental, monumental tribute punctuated by the rhythms of stanzas and syllables in Johnson’s 1910s poem “A Mid-Day Dreamer.”

The livestream was released last week, and on Saturday he won the LetterOne Rising Stars Jazz Award, with a fast-growing footprint. Wilkins is a New School professor, a Juilliard jazz graduate, and a Blue Note bandleader with Jason Moran producing him. Watch as the piano, bass, and drums create a wash of harmony and rhythm before Wilkins, minutes later, floats in. The song, like the poem, applies small strokes to paint a big picture, with each pause mirrored in the saxophone: “I love to sit alone, and dream, and dream, and dream / In fancy’s boat to softly glide / Along some stream.”

The song is anchored by bassist Daryl Johns, pianist Micah Thomas, and drummer Kweku Sumbry. And while Wilkins leads it, the sheer subtlety and alchemy of each are stunning on their own. The video is here. The studio version is loopable. Recharge is at recharge@motherjones.com.

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