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Traditional They Ain’t: Imani Winds at Rockport


Wind quintets are a relative newcomer to chamber music literature; they date from the German court era and were championed initially by composers Anton Reicha (1770-1836) and Franz Danzi (1763-1826). Strong contributions in the last century came from notable exponents like Carl Nielsen, Samuel Barber, Irving Fine, Elliott Carter, Alec Wilder, and Ingolf Dahl.

The Imani Winds — flautist Valerie Coleman, oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz, clarinetist Mariam Adam, French hornist Jeff Scott, and bassoonist Monica Ellis – played a lively and cheerful, yet consistently challenging contemporary program to an enthusiastic full house in a Sunday matinee on June 27 at Rockport. It’s their third Rockport visit, and they feel like family.

The group’s overall sound is smooth and suave, conceptually rich, with spiky attacks, spicy flavors, and a perpetually sinuous rhythmic momentum. Formed in 1997 by graduates of Juilliard and Mannes, Imani has honed a fresh, iconoclastic edge for their quintet. Working, touring, and teaching full-time, their attitude of loose, cheery professionalism is more in tune with jazz groups or rock bands than ‘chamber ensembles.’ Imani’s obvious delight in exploring the intention of each composer commits them to a sense of ownership and exhibits a collective energy smacking of rock and pop groups. Traditional they ain’t: among other gigs, Imani toured European festivals in 2009 with premier jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter. “Imani” (“faith” in Swahili) reflects both the members’ African-American heritage and their innovative leap in launching an on-going venture that commissions new works from a multi-cultural coterie: Cuban clarinettist Paquito D’Rivera, Shorter, Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez, Thelonious Monk shoulder-stander Jason Moran, and Palestinian oudist Simon Shaheen.

The Imani players set a genially familiar tone in the handsome Liu Hall by taking turns announcing the music. (Architectural highlights of the space include a glass wall backdrop (à la Brooklyn’s Bargemusic), patch-worked Asian (not Rockport quarry) limestone, slats of Douglas fir woven with wrought iron, teardrop and egg-case light sconces, and stretches of sea-foam green paint. For thorough analysis of the exquisite acoustics, read David Griesinger’s June 15 column here.

Imani boldly programmed works by living composers, the first by their own flautist. Coleman (b. Louisville, 1970) wrote Red Clay: Mississippi Delta as a bravura blues piece, crisply ornamented, demanding much from Ellis and trumpet-like calls from Adam, with finger-snaps for all. It had the earmarks of an exhilarating showstopper in the manner of pianist/composer James P. Johnson. (Coleman and Scott as composers lean markedly into jazz’s syncopated rhythms, improvisatory gestures, and crossbred Hispanic dance forms. Their completely original concept album — one of four Koch International releases — on the life of American-born Parisian danseuse and entrepreneur Josephine Baker works jazz singer Rene Marie and percussionist Joseph Tompkins into their merry troupe.)

Arturo Marquez (b. Mexico, 1950) whisked a fluid continuum of summer and river in his Danza de Mediodia that linked languid and hectic pacing and contrasted a warm inviting rumba melody line shared by Diaz and Ellis with more blustery, fluttery comments and raggedy staccatos by Scott and Ellis. Danza suited the contrast of dark skins in white outfits, silhouetted against a blue harbor with flitting gulls and sails.

Five Poems of Karel Husa (b. Prague, 1921) portrayed stark, quixotic imaginings of bird-life from ‘unwritten’ poems: walking (bustling Ellis), happy (exuberant Adam), lamenting (piquant, plaintive Diaz), fighting (wildly peculiar sonorities). The last, “Bird Flying High Above,” pitted Scott, mightily striving for lift against the deep, gravity-bound chorale of his colleagues, for all the world like a loon or swan, paddling hell-for-leather and bell-beating to rise from a pond.

The Elliott Carter (b. New York, 1908) selection was the short, spiffy Woodwind Quintet (1948), not the brittle centenarian’s better-known Eight Etudes and a Fantasy (1949). Two four-minute movements flitted between lightning shifts – buffo (Ellis strutting) to grazioso (Diaz eyebrow-arching) as quick as a face reflects mood swings.  Imani negotiated thorny disputations and easy agreements with a well-oiled familiarity and tight dynamic shading.

Miguel del Águila (Montevideo, 1957): Woodwind Quintet #2 presented four tableaux that transported the audience in space and time over half a fleeting hour. Unison voices with orotund Scott intonations depicted a rolling vessel; tapping keys gave shape to a lively danzón where over-the-top fortissimos, Diaz smears cutting Scott howls and Adam wailing over all threatened chaos before a woozily exaggerated rallentando calmed matters. Offstage Diaz and Coleman conjured dark shades of the spirit world, while Scott and Ellis chugged along in a limbo of Hallowe’en haunts. The finale, a swirl of turbans and robes, evoked the Arabian Nights, with Diaz mimicking a Turkish düdük and Scott wielding a tambour. Scott’s dashing, dancing take on late Argentine bandoneon guru Astor Piazzola’s Libertango brought down the house, but neither the glass curtain nor the glass ceiling on Imani Winds.

Fred Bouchard writes about music for Downbeat Magazine and All About Jazz, and about wine for Beverage Business; he lectures on jazz at Boston University, and teaches journalism and literature at Berklee College of Music.

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