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Imani Winds Celebrate the Unquenchable Spirit of Josephine Baker

Imani Winds: Valerie Coleman - flutes; Toyin Spellman-Diaz - oboe; Mariam Adam - clarinet & bass clarinet; Jeff Scott - French horn; Monica Ellis - bassoon/soprano saxophone

Jazz lovers would do well to check out Imani Winds. Officially a classical chamber ensemble, they are opening up new areas of expression for this genre, drawing upon jazz and world music traditions. Along with the standard repertoire for the woodwind quintet, which is itself very rich, they have toured with Paquito D'Rivera and include his compositions in their performances and recordings, along with those of Astor Piazzolla, Mongo Santamaria and Wayne Shorter. This summer, Imani presented the world premiere of Terra Incognita , the first-ever commission for classical artists by Wayne Shorter. Their current tour features a multi-media presentation, virtually a mini review rather than a classical recital, developed as a tribute to Josephine Baker. Strictly speaking this is not jazz, but it is something jazz lovers will enjoy.

The woodwind quintet is a curious hybrid which includes a French horn a brass instrument along with the essential woodwinds: flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon. It arose from instrumental combinations popular in the Viennese court in the late eighteenth century which became stable when major composers began to write for it in the nineteenth. Today it is a popular ensemble for chamber music, though it still lags well behind the string quartet. (Amazon.com has 546 wind quintet listings but 2399 under string quartet!)

Things are looking up for the woodwind quintet, however. Two of them were nominated for 2004/2005 Grammy awards, the Borealis Quintet for "Best Chamber Music Performance" (A La Carte - Short Works For Winds, MSR Classics) along with Imani for "Best Classical Crossover Album" (The Classical Underground, Koch International Classics.) Along with similar groups, such as the Cumberland Quintet, these ensembles have followed a three step process to success: first master the individual and group techniques - flawless performance is essential; second, become familiar with the standard repertoire - Imani include works by such composers as Mendelssohn, Ravel, Elliot Carter, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Cesar Franck in their performances; third develop new material. This is important not only for an individual group, but essential if modern concert music is to escape the dead end it has created for itself. In a musical era dominated what music historian Paul Henry Lang described as the "varicose veins of chromaticism," writing tonal music has been derided as "picking over the garbage." Yet it is tonal music that still resonates with the average concert goer. "Some of this music which is written by the head is not touching the people," writes Sir James Galway, "because they don't bring their heads to the concert, they bring their hearts, and they want to be touched." By rhythmically revitalizing tonal music, jazz and its world music derivatives has risen to this need, extending the life of tonal forms. But it has to be used intelligently on the concert stage. Imani Winds has led the way in this effort; it was the first place recipient of the ASCAP/ Chamber Music America Award for Adventurous Programming, "in recognition of IW's commitment to contemporary classical music of today." Along with African and Latin American influences, jazz has been an important part of this expansion, as Gramophone magazine comments, "taking the wind quintet where it rarely ventures."

As African-Americans, the Imani Winds members have a natural affinity for jazz. Hence their looking to the likes of D'Rivera, Santamaria and Shorter for material. Group members Scott and Coleman themselves contribute compositions, including Scott's "Homage To Duke." In their search for material they focused on the largely ignored centenary of Josephine Baker, the extraordinary expatriate American singer, dancer and humanitarian, who conquered largely European audiences from the 1920s until her death in 1975. During the second world war she risked her life working for the French Underground Resistance, and later she worked tirelessly for civil rights, served as an ambassador for UNICEF, spoke on behalf of the International League Against Racism and Anti Semitism, for which she was honored by the NAACP, and made headlines with her huge, multi-racial, adopted family. Imani's members found in her a kindred spirit. "Inspired by Ms. Baker's pioneering spirit and fearless passion for performing," read the concert notes, "Imani Winds conceptualized this three-segment presentation in part as a reflection of the group's own uphill journey as an African American/Latino wind quintet in the classical music world." The three-part tribute consists of original music by Coleman, Scott and composer Fred Ho, and some of Baker's best known songs arranged by Scott and performed with great gusto by vocalist René Marie. Coleman's music is in five parts, distributed among the three segments of the presentation which themselves represent the three stages in Baker's life and career: "Journey Across the Ocean," Elements of Success," and "Continuous Rebirth." Executed flawlessly by the quintet, supplemented by percussionist Joseph Tompkins, the music is highly colorful and soaked in the spirit of Le Jazz Hot: Armstrong and Ellington via Stravinsky and Milhaud. Marie commanded the stage whenever she appeared, projecting the spirit of Josephine Baker (without the topless costumes, however), and brought the house down with her naughty rendition of "Don't Touch My Tomatoes," for which the quintet, attired, like Marie, in 1920s costumes, left the stage in a conga line, both at the end of Act 2 and for the group's encore. A further dimension was added by still images and film clips of Baker projected onto a screen above the group. The result was a classical recital that was full of good music but also a great deal of fun.

Imani Winds' publicity material refers to them as "genre-busting." There are some genres these days that need busting! And the distinctions have never interested musicians. Informed that people were puzzled by his Sketches of Spain album, not knowing whether to call it classical music or jazz, Gil Evans responded "That's a merchandiser's problem, not mine. I write popular music." Whether jazz, classical or popular, these categories need to be challenged. Those who attempt to do so are dubbed "fusion" or "crossover" artists, and they include jazz players such as Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Dave Brubeck, Keith Jarrett, James Newton, Jan Garbarek, Fred Hersch, and Victor Feldman, as well as violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo Yo Ma and flutists Jim Walker, James Galway and Jean-Pierre Rampal among classical artists. Imani Winds now occupies a prominent place on that list, and their music deserves attention from both classical music and jazz lovers.

The group will present this show again in Florida and California; the schedule can be seen at: www.imaniwinds.com. If you cannot get to one of these performances, they have three fine CDs. Check out Imani Winds.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Imani Winds
  • Concert Date: October 12 & 13, 2006
  • Subtitle: Wind Quintet Explores Jazz Age
  • Venue: Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland
  • City State Country: College Park, Maryland
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