The recital opened with French horn player Jeff Scott walking out on stage to present the first theme statement of Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue," a piece associated with John Coltrane. He was joined, one by one, by the other members of the quintet who engaged in a contrapuntal dialogue with a strongly improvisational feel. This was followed by excerpts from flutist Valerie Coleman's "Portraits of Josephine," her tribute to Josephine Baker. Following this, we heard pieces by Astor Piazzolla, Lalo Schiffrin, Wayne Shorter and Justinian Tamusuza.
Schiffrin is well known for his movie scores, but also played and wrote for Dizzy Gillespie in the 1960s; he was on piano the first time I saw Dizzy's group. His piece "La Nouvelle Orleans" is evocative of the spirit of the early days of jazz, alternating moods of sadness and affirmation like a traditional New Orleans funeral.
Shorter is, of course, well known to jazz lovers after his work with Art Blakey, Miles Davis and Weather Report, as well as his own groups. Having added many fine compositions to the jazz cannon, he is now working on longer, formal compositions, and this one, "Terra Incognita," is the first to be performed by any group that he does not actually include him. It is a work of shifting moods, colors and feelings and suggests that his gradual movement into more formal composition is beginning to bear some interesting fruits.
Tamusuza is from Uganda. His piece, "Abaafa Luli" means, in Lugandan, "They Who Died Then." It is a tribute to 22 19th Century Christian converts who were murdered when they refused to renounce their faith. Tamusuza has clearly mastered the language of contemporary western music while not losing touch with his roots, resulting in what his own website (www.internationalopus.com/Justinian_Tamasuza) tellingly describes as "a bubbling, earthy romp through African-European cultural distinctions." A review in the Richmond Free Press described it as ". . . a mosaic of African and European genres." It continues: "In this short piece [seven minutes] in two sections, Tamusuza creates a rich polyrhythmic texture (2/4 and 6/8 times predominate, with many permutations), woven not just by wind instruments but also hand-held maracas and stamping feet. The main theme sounds like a rhythmically energized hymn tune. The climactic ending - rapid and resounding rhythms - served to delight and exhilarate the listener." I can't describe it better and could not have enjoyed it more.
All of these selections provided music of great brilliance, full of movement and color, executed with great panache and good humor. Add to this the group's engaging stage presence, taking the time and trouble to introduce each piece in some detail, and it becomes clear why Imani Winds is engaging audiences from coast to coast and, soon, in Europe and beyond. For classical music lovers, they are an invigorating change of pace. For jazz lovers, they provide a great way into a new genre; and they are now recording and appearing with such artists as Wayne Shorter, Steve Coleman and Paquito D'Rivera. Either way, an Imani Winds concert is a uniquely enjoyable experience.