Of all the things that can and should and will be said of Sam Wilkes’ & Jacob Mann’s Perform the Compositions of Sam Wilkes & Jacob Mann, let’s begin at the beginning and acknowledge that it is an aptly named record indeed. An ideal collaborative effort (which is to say, greater than the sum of its parts), here we have two longtime friends, two luminaries of the New Weird Los Angeles — the experimental, genre-encompassing underground—who have, at last, devoted a full-length record to their signature musical admixture.
Since their meeting as USC music students (Wilkes studied bass, and Mann, jazz/piano), the two have, with a kind of ceaseless abandon, chased the music to the ends the earth — oftentimes quite literally; travel is a recurrent theme in Compositions’ track titles (Pre-board, Soft Landing, and Around the Horn), and the record’s second track, Jakarta, was sketched out in a hotel room in the city of the same name, where Wilkes and Mann were performing at a jazz festival in 2019. Having initially bonded over a mutual and abiding appreciation for the Soulquarians, the two have spent over a decade playing and traveling, together and separately, their styles coevolving all the while.
Across its thirteen tracks, Compositions captures the relaxed creative flow of two consummate musicians. Most of the record’s sessions (“four-to-five-day summits” in an apartment studio, occasioned by “blasts of inspiration”) began with casual improvisation, and, indeed, roughly half of the final material was composed in this manner: Wilkes and Mann squaring off, a Yamaha DX7 facing a Roland Juno 106, alternating leads, two co-pilots with no set course. And though the songs are polished to a shine, there are artifacts of the intimacy of these sessions. Yes It Is concludes with a snippet of just-intelligible studio chatter: “…A flat minor, then A major.” A figuring-it-out-as-we-go moment that briefly renders explicit the warmth, friendship, and creative freedom that is the album’s heart.
The duo has quipped that Compositions is Mann’s most “serious” project, while simultaneously being Wilkes’ most “light-hearted” — somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but there are certainly two distinct sensibilities at play across Compositions. Their aesthetics collide, coalesce, and diverge, often in a single song. Then the process starts anew. The album begins with the whimsical (exuberant, even!) glitched-out Cricket Club and ends on a note of quiet contentment with Wichita Wilkes, an Earth, Wind, and Fire x shoegaze fever dream.
That Compositions coheres as well as it does is a testament to Wilkes’ and Mann’s shared vernacular. Both have expressed a tendency to communicate their musical ideas linguistically, posing questions like “what would the woodwinds be doing here?” Though only the two musicians are credited, the ensemble conjured by their combined imaginary feels infinite.