Winds of Change

September 26, 2011 — By Fernando Gonzalez

For Imani Winds, a wind quintet distinguished as much by its virtuoso playing as for its fresh, adventurous repertoire, every program is a statement of purpose.

Valerie Coleman, flute; Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboe; Mariam Adam, clarinet;  Jeff Scott, French horn; and Monica Ellis, bassoon, have been together as an ensemble since 1997 and “there wasn’t any particular event or conscious decision on our part that we would go from the standard repertoire to more modern pieces,” explains Coleman while on her lunch break from rehearsal.  “Initially, when we started the idea was to play standard repertoire through our [African-American and Latino] heritage and possibly have a different spin on interpretation. But somehow [a modern repertoire] seemed like a natural fit. I can’t tell you exactly when we started to bring original works to the table because it was such a natural, organic occurrence.”

And bring they did.  For a good part of its career, Imani Winds has been broadening the limited, standard literature not only by writing new music (Coleman and Scott are also composers) but also arrangements of unexpected source material and commissioning new work.

The result has been not only a wider but deeper, more diverse repertoire.

The quintet’s growing catalog includes works by Ravel, Mendelssohn, György Ligeti, and Luciano Berio—alongside Wayne Shorter, Jason Moran, Paquito D’Rivera and Mongo Santamaría.

Their concert on Wednesday, October 12 at UM Maurice Gusman Concert Hall, part of Festival Miami , also features the debut of the Stamps Woodwind Quintet. The program that evening includes music by Stravinsky, Debussy, and Czech composer Pavel Haas, but also by contemporary Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz, and Imani’s own Valerie Coleman.

The Stamps Woodwind Quintet will play a piece by English composer Malcolm Arnold and then join Imani Winds for a performance of Scott’s arrangement of music by the late New Tango master Astor Piazzolla.

The search for new, different pieces to play “was always on,” recalls Coleman. But what they found is that there wasn’t much available, she says, which in time led her and Scott to write new music “whenever we felt there was a need in the repertoire.”

“And we found that the adventurous stuff was really gratifying,” she says. “There was a certain energy to it that was addictive, and it really helped jump-start our evolution.”

In fact, as the members of Imani pushed the edges of its comfort zone and began commissioning new music and working with the composers, they got not only new pieces for the group, but also a richer vocabulary for themselves as players.

“Wayne [Shorter] has his own way of looking at music,” says Coleman. “The piece he wrote for us wasn’t your typical start-from-the-top-and-go. So we learned improvisation with him in a certain way. [Vibraphonist] Stefon Harris has a particular concept about scales. He has his own theory, and within those guidelines you are free to move about the cabin, so to speak.“

“And then you have [oud master] Simon Shaheen, working with Middle Eastern scales and all these great rhythms and embellishments,” she continues. “That was a really hard process for us because we really had to rewire part of our brains for it. But it was fine. All we have to do is just keep an open mind and be willing to try things.”

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