Imani Winds Blow Across Aotearoa
"There's a big, vivacious, steel-belt of a sound Imani gets when playing at the top of its lungs that is most appealing" - Peter Dobrin, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
For the final recital of their highly successful 2017 season, Chamber Music New Zealand have scored another ambitious coup by arranging for Imani Winds to perform nine concerts around the the country. Praised by the Philadelphia Inquirer as "what triumph sounds like," Imani has established itself as one of the most successful chamber music ensembles in the US. Since 1997, the Grammy-nominated quintet has taken a unique path, carving out a distinctive niche in the classical music world with its dynamic playing, culturally poignant programming, adventurous collaborations, and inspirational outreach programs. With two member composers and an ongoing commitment to commissioning new work, the group has not only enriched the traditional wind quintet repertoire, but also managed to fuse European, American, African, and Latin American traditions.
Celebrated for their sultry sophistication, Imani Winds are an outstandingly talented group of musicians whose reputation for innovation is growing internationally. Flutist and composer Valerie Coleman founded the quintet in 1997 and it quickly developed a reputation for its adventurous programming, including newly-composed works, as well as compositions featuring African and Latin American influences (the name Imani means 'faith' in Swahili). Ably supporting Coleman's endeavours are Toyin Spellman-Diaz on oboe, Mark Dover on clarinet, Jeff Scott on French horn, and Monica Ellis playing bassoon.
Having worked on The Ascension to Light (1997) with saxophonist Steve Coleman, the quintet subsequently released eight CDs of their own, including Umoja, The Classical Underground (nominated for a Grammy), Imani Winds, and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Startin' Sumthin, their eighth commercial recording, was released last year. They have presented premieres by such composers as Paquita D'Rivera, Mohammed Fairouz, Wayne Shorter, Richard Wernick, Fred Ho, Kenji Bunch, and Bruce Adolphe. Imani has toured throughout the US and Canada and participated in Chamber Music Society Two, a professional residency program of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. In addition, Imani has toured internationally with Shorter and Coleman, performed with pop recording artists Morley, and opened for Cassandra Wilson and Wynton Marsalis. In the US, they have performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Disney Hall, and the Kimmel Center and have been engaged by premier chamber music series in Boston, San Francisco, Portland, Philadelphia and New York.
Their broad repertoire demonstrates their mission to expand and diversify new music sources, actively adapting new music and new voices into the modern classical idiom. From Mendelssohn, Jean Françaix, György Ligeti, and Luciano Berio, to Astor Piazzolla, Elliott Carter and John Harbison; Paquito D’Rivera, and Simon Shaheen, Imani members Valerie Coleman and Jeff Scott both regularly contribute compositions and arrangements, bringing fresh sounds and textures to the traditional instrumentation. Scott recently wrote a concert-length new work for Imani Winds, jazz trio, and string quartet entitled The Passion, which musically explored the idea of a fictitious meeting between JS Bach and John Coltrane.
The group continues its Legacy Commissioning Project, in which the ensemble premiers and tours new works for woodwind written by established and emerging composers from diverse musical backgrounds. The Legacy Project kicked off in 2008 with world premieres by Alvin Singleton and Roberto Sierra. Since then, projects have included works by Jason Moran, Stefon Harris, Danilo Perez, Simon Shaheen, and Mohammed Fairouz. The group’s fifth album on E1 Music (Terra Incognita, after Wayne Shorter’s piece written for the group) is a celebration of the Legacy project with new works written by Shorter, Moran, and D’Rivera, and they premiered a new work by Frederic Rzewski for Duke University’s Duke Performances in 2015.
Dover comments: "Imani Winds has always been committed to sharing our music with people who are not typically accustomed to hearing it. Community based outreach is one of the most meaningful and powerful things we do as an ensemble. It is completely integral to the future of our music to continue expanding our reach to all people, especially those who don't have easy access to classical music. Breaking down the barriers of formality that classical music sometimes brings really helps listeners feel intimately connected to the music they are hearing. The future of classical music is dependent on not alienating or intimidating our audiences, but rather inspiring them and earning their attention and interest."
After working on Shorter’s Terra Incognita (his first-ever composition for another ensemble), Imani Winds went on to perform extensively with him at major European festivals like the North Sea Jazz Festival, and in North America at the Montreal Jazz Festival and venues such as Carnegie and Disney Halls. Imani Winds are featured prominently on Shorter’s acclaimed 2013 release Without a Net. The group’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center residency culminated in a recital in New York’s Alice Tully Hall with renowned clarinetist/saxophonist/composer Paquito D’Rivera. The ensemble has also worked with bandoneonist Daniel Binelli, the Brubeck brothers, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, clarinetist David Shifrin, and pianists Gilbert Kalish and Shai Wosner. Their ambitious project, Josephine Baker: A Life of Le Jazz Hot brought chanteuse René Marie with them to New York, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and St. Louis.
Their technical excellence has been recognized with numerous awards including the 2007 ASCAP Award, 2002 CMA/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, as well as the CMA/WQXR Award for their debut and self-released recording Umoja. At the 2001 Concert Artists Guild International Competition, Imani Winds was selected as the first-ever Educational Residency Ensemble, in recognition of their tremendous musical abilities and innovative programming.
Imani Winds’ commitment to education runs deep. The group participates in residencies throughout the U.S., giving master classes to thousands of students a year. In the summer of 2010 the ensemble launched its annual Chamber Music Festival. The program, set on the campus of Mannes School of Music, brings together young instrumentalists and composers from across North America and beyond for an intense exploration and performance of traditional and new chamber music compositions.
Bassoonist Ellis advice to younger musicians is "to recognise sooner when something is not working out correctly, so that you can change or alter the situation as soon as possible. In the business of music, especially in today's fast paced, ‘instant everything’ world, it's important to react to various circumstances that one may be faced with, effectively and efficiently. It's also very important, of course, not to react rashly or too quickly and you have to have lots of patience and a level head. It's definitely a balancing act. The thing is … if you are courageous enough to venture into the field of being a professional musician, it's so vital to trust your gut. If something really feels like it's the right decision to make, it likely is!
From 2016-18, Imani have been the University of Chicago's Don Michael Randel Ensemble-in-Residence. This multi-faceted residency includes in depth collaborations with wind students, the chamber music department, composition majors and the Hyde Park community and also features world premieres on the "UC Presents" Series, the presenting arm of the University. Now in their seventh year, Imani Winds have achieved global success, ranging from winning positions in orchestras, expanding entrepreneurial endeavors, founding their own music educational programs, and forming their own chamber music ensembles.
Spellman-Diaz feels "the potential relevancy of classical music is under-represented in people's thoughts today, especially newly-made contemporary classical music. Imani Winds always plays everything that touches their music stands with meaningful, thoughtful interpretation. It doesn't matter whether the music was written by composers who lived fifty years ago or composers that wrote their music fifty days ago, all music has a purpose."
"Music without words can be even more universally meaningful than music with lyrics because the meaning is up for interpretation. We have a responsibility, as instrumental musicians, to put all of our own meaning into the music so that the listeners can hear, if not a literal meaning, that at least there is something there to grasp onto. When a listener hears that kind of intent they are changed."
At Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre, Imani Winds offered a unique programme entitled 'Tradition and the Innovative,' reflecting their commitment to both classical and modern composers. Scott firmly believes "jazz and other American popular musics are worthy of exposure on the classical concert stage. Even more, I believe it's the challenge of the 21st Century musician to train for the flexibility and sensibility in these genres alongside the traditional Western Classical canon. While jazz and popular styles do not make it into every composition or arrangement I write, the colours remain as options amongst the spectrum of choices at any point of the process."
Red Clay and Mississippi Delta by Valerie Coleman was a blues-inflected, slithery romp with a contemporary New Orleans feel, spicy and piquant as Cajun gumbo. Selections from Scheherazade by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was arranged for woodwinds by Jonathan Russell. It involved a reduction of essential elements into a sinuously intricate and delicate, yet dynamic and muscular exploration of Arabic sonorities. It possessed a languorous, enchanting quality that was also lithely agile, with the bassoon and French horn anchoring the quintet's sound, while allowing plenty of room for the flute, oboe, and clarinet to soar above the surface into the higher atmospheric reaches. As its title implies, Astor Piazzolla's Contrabajissimo featured the full range and vibratory resonance of the lower register's gravity and weight, without feeling either overburdened or bottom heavy. The balance achieved by Scott's superb arrangement was finely cantilevered so the entire architecture of the piece felt effortlessly self-supporting.
CMNZ commissioned Snapshots from New Zealand composer Natalie Hunt, who travelled overland from South Africa to Kenya, via Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania last year. It has three short, highly evocative, and innovative movements depicting distinct features of the African landscape and environment: "I had wanted to travel to Africa for a long time; to see a glimpse of its beauty and massive diversity was a wonderful experience. I look forward to returning very much. By coincidence, I was asked to write for Imani Winds while I was on the trip. Naturally, I jumped at the chance! I knew immediately that the piece would be inspired by what I was seeing." "Namib reflects how I felt travelling through the desert in Namibia, where the landscape creeps and morphs, the rocks glow in the evening sun, and the night sky is brilliantly clear. Mosi-oa-Tunya - “The Smoke Which Thunders” - is in response to trying to see the elusive Victoria Falls behind their spray. Delta Dreams reminds me of gliding through the Okavango Delta, which in turns reminds me of other deltas around the world, such as the Niger, Amazon, and Mississippi." Hunt is clearly a talented young composer to watch closely in future ...
Paquito D'Rivera's A Farewell Mambo was another eye-opener. It opened with some neat neoclassical chromatic dovetailing which then transitioned seamlessly into a funky mambo dance rhythm, hypnotic, smooth, and slithery as a snake. Reflecting the increasing musical freedom of the entire recital, the final piece was Dance Mediterranea by Palestinian-American composer Simon Shaheen (arranged by Scott). Inspired by the events of the Arab Spring, it portrayed a Mediterranean vista populated by the various European and Islamic cultures that have historically touched its shores. It is a characteristically eclectic mixture of elements, evoking the muezzin's call intermingled with the sanctity and excitement of a jazzy, contrapuntal missa brevis as scored for woodwinds. A richly-deserved encore saw the quintet perform a soulful and clearly heartfelt rendition of 'Go Tell It On The Mountain.'
You can see Imani Winds perform in Palmerston North on 26/9; Napier on 28/9; Hamilton on 30/9; New Plymouth on 2/10; Nelson on 4/10; Dunedin on 7/10; Christchurch on 10/10; and Auckland on 12/10. In Auckland New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Nelson, and Invercargill they will present a programme that includes Afro Blue by Afro-Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria (arranged by Coleman); Maurice Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin (arranged by Mason Jones); Kites by Paquito D’Rivera; Hunt's Snapshots; Portraits of Josephine by Coleman; and Astor Piazolla's Libertango (arranged by Scott).