Review and photographs by J Hunter
Although my New Year’s resolution was to bring different types of music into my daily life, Imani Winds came to me through my primary musical idiom, which is jazz: In 2008, the New York-based quintet collaborated with second-generation jazzer Chris Brubeck on his three-movement Third Stream composition, “Vignettes for Nonet”; the results appear on the Brubeck Brothers’ disc Classified. And while those pieces are very beautiful, they only offer a taste of the magical mastery tour Imani Winds can take you on when they’re playing their own game.
Jazz is indeed part of Imani’s game, and we saw elements of that genre during the two beautiful sets they laid down in front of a sparse mid-week crowd at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz smilingly calls the quintet’s music “classical with a twist”; mind you, that doesn’t mean they’re giving their primary genre the Boston Pops treatment – i.e. dumbing it down for “classical-curious” listeners so promoters can fill seats. Put simply, you don’t include Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in your program – which Imani did – if you want to keep the punters interested.
As clarinetist Mariam Adam pointed out, “The writing for the wind quintet has not been explored,” so it’s good Imani features prolific composers like flautist/leader Valerie Coleman, whose bouncing piece “Tzigane” opened the first set. Please don’t confuse “bouncing” with “bouncy,” a word that’s been hijacked by bad pop music. This piece bounced like a cat prowling through the forest, jumping over downed trees and darting through bushes to the rhythm of Jeff Scott’s percussive French horn. TMH’s legendary acoustics were in full view as Coleman’s solo soared like a thrush over snapping chords from Adam, Scott and bassoonist/Cassandra Wilson stunt double Monica Ellis.
Although jazz could be heard in Adam’s whimsical clarinet, “Tzigane” had a definite eastern European tone – plenty of folk music, with a little klezmer on the side. Imani Winds likes to take you on “journeys” – not just with the vivid pictures they can paint in your mind, but by bringing in idioms from around the world for your enjoyment and their exploration. Simon Shaheen’s “Dance Mediterranea” (arranged by Scott) was a sumptuous tasting tour of every nation that borders the Mediterranean, from Greece to Turkey to Israel and everywhere in between; Narong Prangcharoen’s “Shadow” was a study of music and film in the composer’s native Thailand; and we even got an intimate look into the “psyche” of birds during Karel Husa’s “Five Poems.”
As Ellis happily “warned” us during her introduction to the latter piece, the quintet really went at it during “Fighting Birds”, the fourth movement of “Poems.” While not using actual bird calls, you could “see” birds fighting for mates, fighting for territory, or fighting because it’s just FUN! I’ve watched red-wing blackbirds defending their territory, and it was easy to picture them darting back and forth from tree to bush to swamp reed, looking for a place of their own and ready to defend it once they find it. Imani Winds’ stunning chemistry and communication makes a byzantine piece like this seem like a walk in the park.
And speaking of byzantine, let’s talk about “Rite of Spring,” which fomented outright rebellion on its 1913 Paris debut. It’s the title that fooled those unsuspecting patrons, and it fools people to this day. It sounds so pastoral, and yet while the season can seem so beautiful and so welcome (particularly nowadays), there’s a fair bit of chaos we take for granted: All the snow melts, but that leads to raging rivers and flooded fields; leaves pop into view, but the sunlight is suddenly blocked out in the forest; baby bunnies and birds get born, but that just means more choices for hungry predators. You get the idea, and so does Imani, who made Jonathan Russell’s stripped-out arrangement bustle with muscle, giving more than a hint of how terrifying this piece could be in the hands of a full orchestra.
For all the beauty and mastery Imani Winds showed us, my favorite moments came when the group did something that would scandalize most classical concertgoers as much as “Rite of Spring”: They STOOD UP – Coleman, Adam & Ellis for Coleman’s 2nd-set opener “Rubisphere” (a title suggested by Adam), and the entire group for an impromptu, improvisation-infused encore. While it was easy to see that all this music moves the players, to see them react and interact with their bodies (rather than their eyes) added to the great joy they brought to those hardy souls who braved yet another blast of cold air to see something warm and wonderful.