SAM WILKES: WILKES
When an artist creates a sound unmistakably their own—that warrants exploration over multiple releases—it’s a sign that they’re onto something. On his new six-track LP for Leaving, Sam Wilkes is definitely onto something. He may be familiar to some as an accomplished bassist delivering head-spinning lines in the fusion combo Knower, but on his latest—simply entitled WILKES—he becomes an intrepid bandleader and multi-instrumental alchemist, pushing further into the jazz-driven dream world introduced on his recent collaboration with Sam Gendel, Music for Saxofone and Bass Guitar. From the billowing synth pad that gives way to a cover of John Coltrane’s “Welcome” at the record’s beginning to the transcendent closer “Descending,” the world of WILKES is immersive. Gendel’s sax returns as a primary collaborator, shifting unpredictably between weightless smooth jazz and vivid free expression, while blurry chords and cascading drones build the record’s uniquely hazy atmosphere. It’s a kind of modern jazz-not-jazz that inhabits its own spiritual plane. While other jazz revitalizers found inspiration by bringing elements of hip-hop and club music into the mix, Wilkes turns the genre inside out to reveal an emotional resonance at its core—a mood equal parts melancholy and joy that remains distinct even if it’s difficult to pin down. That’s not to say WILKES doesn’t bridge genres. Several tracks contain passages that would be at home on a contemporary ambient record, while “Descending” makes sly use of an 808 hi-hat. Then there are drummers Christian Euman and Louis Cole, who invoke a prog sensibility on songs like “Tonight” and “Hug” which marks a decisive step forward from the understated beats of Music for Saxofone and Bass Guitar. But the real magic of WILKES is how its smoky production interacts with the ensemble. In the absence of high-fi definition, the group sounds amorphous and shapeshifting, blending at times into a single sonic entity before separating back into its individual parts. On the album’s biggest moments you won’t hear the intricacies of each player. Instead you’ll be confronted with a wash of musical energy that feels like it was crammed into a single microphone, and sounds all the better for it.