Imani Winds: (from left) Monica Ellis, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Jeff Scott, Valerie Coleman, Mariam Adam. ‘We all as musicians want to touch the hand of God, we want to feel the divine, we want to be elevated,’ says group founder Coleman.
On Solid Ground, In Unknown Lands
On Terra Incognita, Imani Winds triumphs with a masterful coupling of technical proficiency to soulful expression rooted in their shared sense of cultural inclusiveness
By David McGee
It begins on an ominous, five-note minor key phrase, and then proceeds with trepidation and contemplation through a quiet passage, with brief eruptions of emotion along the way. So begins a journey of many sonic colors within a contemplative framework. As the journey progresses, the dark shadows gradually lift—the bassoon has been the steady, droning voice of warning, but even it gets caught up in the airy, uplifting flights of the oboe, the piccolo and flute, the clarinet, and engages the other instruments in energetic exclamations of discovery, even as the French horn’s warmth and resilience suggests triumph ahead.
Thus the musical anthropomorphizing of Imani Winds’ bracing new exploration, Terra Incognita, arguably the most formidable challenge the New York City-based quintet has yet tackled, the triumph of its mating of precision playing to profound, nuanced emotional engagement representing the group’s finest hour on record.
Nominated for a Grammy Award for 2005’s The Classical Underground, and coming off 2007’s A Life of Le Jazz Hot (an album of original suites composed by group founder Valerie Coleman [flute, piccolo] and the French horn master Jeff Scott interpreting the life, art and times of Josephine Baker), and 2008’s exhilarating recasting of sacred and secular Yuletide fare, This Christmas, Imani Winds has seized the moment of its return with a vengeance. Terra Incognita is as rich, deep and multi-textured as its Henri Rousseau cover art, a jungle painting depicting a tiger stalking a buffalo through deep overgrowth flecked with bright, uplifting light in the flowers and leaves all around. Like the Rousseau painting, the music on Terra Incognita often heads into dark, unknown places, but emerges into life affirming light periodically and, at the end, assertively.
Since debuting on disc in 2002 with Umoja, Imani Winds has made unpredictability its calling card. Nominally a classical ensemble, Imani Winds has enlarged the repertoire for wind quintet by speaking to the individual members’ African American and Latin American ancestry. Compositions by Cuban multi-instrumentalist Paquito D’Rivera, Argentinian tango composer and bandoneón virtuoso Astor Piazzolla, and Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos have fit neatly on their records alongside traditional spirituals, jazz-influenced works by young contemporary composers such as Jason Moran, Ms. Coleman’s and Mr. Scott’s border crossing compositions, and pieces by old masters such as Ravel. Ambitious in concept, daring in scope, the music of Imani Winds sounds like the global counterpart to the new American classical music Mark O’Connor has been busy formulating from native blues, folk, country and bluegrass sources.
Terra Incognita is a true leap forward for Imani Winds. The album contains only three extended compositions, each commissioned by the group for this project, by Jason Moran (familiar to Imani Winds fans from his work on This Christmas), Paquito D'Rivera and Wayne Shorter (whose composition—the first piece the jazz titan has ever written for anyone other than his own group—is the 14-minutes-plus title track, “Terra Incognita”). In each case, the composer presented the band with a work that plumbed his personal history in thoughtful, introspective and, periodically, joyous, terms. Shorter, renowned as a spiritual and musical explorer both, of course would write “Terra Incognita,” or “unknown lands”—and then leave out all instructions as to texture and dynamics, in effect telling Imani Winds (whose members include, in addition to Ms. Coleman and Mr. Scott, Toyin Spellman-Diaz on oboe, Mariam Adam on clarinet and Monica Ellis on bassoon) to do some exploring of uncharted territory on their own in order to find their voices in the piece. Paquito D’Rivera’s two-part “Kites” ruminates on and celebrates the sense of freedom he felt when he moved from Cuba to the United States. Jason Moran’s challenging four-part “Cane” is, first, a musical interpretation of the amazing journey of his illiterate great-great-grandaunt, who was enslaved on a plantation in Natchitoches, LA, but after being freed received a land grant from the Spanish government; working her own property, she made enough money to buy her children out of slavery. The subtext of the piece, the emotional coloring, you might say, is inextricably linked to Mr. Moran’s discovery of this family history and its impact on him.
In an exclusive album preview published in the June 2010 issue of TheBluegrassSpecial.com, Valerie Coleman offered her insights into each work. Those bear repeating here:
On Paquito D’Rivera’s “Kites”: "Paquito basically created a work that not only tied into the groove factor that he is known for, the Afro-Cuban sound that he creates in such a unique way; but it also ties back to his social roots in Cuba. When living in Cuba he felt as if he were tethered down, but when he moved to the U.S. he felt free. So this piece is kind of like a kite—a kite soars up in the air, but it's always tethered to the ground. But once you get that feeling that you're soaring through the air you don't want to come back down to the ground, at all. You don't want to be pulled back, restrained or restricted. So he creates this concept within the Afro-Cuban sound. There's a lot of piccolo in there (laughs), you know; that's why I really love the piece-I'm so partial to it because of the piccolo factor. But he wrote it for us, the wind quintet, himself and a pianist. And he has little portions of improvisation going on in there as well. So it's a sultry piece at times; it grooves in other places; it is profound. It has speaking in it. Okay, now I might be saying too much about it! But overall, I have to tell you, everybody in the group is saying, 'Okay, this is a Grammy nominated album.' I believe that strongly, and the reason why is each piece is so unique and so strong in its own way. I would not be surprised if all three of them as composers get nominated for their work on the compositional level."
Photo: Tilman Dette/The Dartmouth Senior Staff
On Jason Moran’s “Cane”: "Jason's piece is built on his ancestry. He had a great-great-grandaunt that was a slave. Being the concubine of the slave master, she was later freed, but her children still remained in captivity. So this amazing woman got a land grant from the Spanish government to basically purchase land. She tilled the soil, she cultivated it, and one by one she bought all of her children back. Think about this: an ex-slave, she didn't know how to read or write, but somehow she managed to get a land grant from the Spanish government in Louisiana. It's an incredible story. But the story is not completely about her; it's about Jason's discovery, of where he came from, his soul searching, all the way up to the last movement where it's now 'Natchitoches to New York,' that's the name of the last movement, which means that his family was on the plantation in Natchitoches, his ancestors, but now he's brought them up to New York. The piece is very profound; it's gorgeous. Once again it's so unique.
On Wayne Shorter’s "Terra Incognita": "His concept is foreign lands, unknown lands, foreign waters, uncharted territories. Wayne is such an explorer (laughs), not just on a musical front, but on a spiritual front, and in his imagination as well. He loves to read sci-fi books, and I think that his music shows a little bit of that. There are a lot of heroics in Wayne's sound, in the spiritual elevation of his music. Oh, gosh—I can't even describe the piece. You never know what's going to happen next. It has so many different twists and turns, goes through so many harmonic progressions that you would not expect. And then it ends with this melody that he's been playing all along in the piece, at different points with different backgrounds and different tempi and whatnot, but then he just goes back to the root of it at the end. It's a really spiritual moment. Wayne is who he is because he can tap into the spirit. He can touch the hand of God, so to speak, and you hear it, you feel it, it resounds right to the tip of your toes. If you feel the earth rumble when you hear Wayne play, that's your spirit moving because he's moving it.
"Traveling through space is a big interest of his. I wouldn't be surprised if we hear in a couple of years from now that he's decided to get on the Shuttle. Just go above the Earth to see what it looks like from space. He's an incredible person. He transformed the way we looked at music. When you're on stage with him, he is elevated to a point where you're soaring just by witnessing what he's doing. You want to bring that back to your own performances. You want to tap into that sense of greater-than-you.
"'Terra Incognita' is the first piece Wayne has ever written outside of his group. Think about it—everything Wayne has written he has played, or he and his band have played. When he decided to write for us he said, 'Now is the time to bring what I do, push it to an external sense. These cats, they get it so I'm going to try to write something of that nature.' We're so flattered that he think we can 'get it.' All I know is there have been times when we're on stage and I'm just brought to tears, in awe of what he does. That's all I know."
The Terra Incognita EPK: The story behind the music, in the musicians’ and composers’ words.
Meet Imani Winds
Imani Winds is the dream of Kentucky native Valerie Coleman. Something of a child prodigy, she had written three symphonies by the time she was fourteen. From Boston University she received a double Bachelor’s degree in Theory/Composition and Flute Performance, and from Mannes College of Music in New York City a Master’s Degree in Flute Performance. She has been an understudy for flutist Eugenia Zukerman at Lincoln Center, a featured soloist in the Mannes 2000 Bach Festival, two-time laureate of the Young Artist Competition at Boston U., recipient of the Aspen Music Festival Wombwell Kentucky Award and the inaugural recipient of the Michelle E. Sahm Memorial Award at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. She has served on the faculty of The Juilliard School’s Music Advancement Program and Interschool Orchestras of New York. Currently, she is on the advisory panel of the National Flute Association. Like her partners in Imani Winds, Ms. Coleman’s rigorous academic training has imbued her with a deep devotion to education, which expresses itself in projects such as Imani Winds’ Chamber Music Institute, an intensive eight-day program centered on wind chamber music performance that completed its first session this past August. At the Institute, the group members and guest artists work with 25 students who have been selected by audition.
World-class oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz is currently on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, Precollege Division. Ms. Spellman-Diaz attended the Oberlin Conservatory, where she received a Bachelor of Music degree, and then matriculated to the Manhattan School of Music, where she earned Masters and Professional Studies degrees. Though Ms. Coleman and Mr. Scott are the principal composers within Imani Winds, Ms. Spellman-Diaz has written to performance pieces for the group that incorporate music into the telling of a story by using the instruments as props and as integral components of the story. As an orchestral musician, her performance credits include the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Chicago Civic Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony, Brooklyn Philharmonic and Orchestra of St. Lukes.
Hailing from Monterey, CA, clarinetist Mariam Adam—the first musician Valerie Coleman approached when she was forming Imani Winds—studied as an undergraduate with the legendary clarinetist Rosario Mazzeo, a time when she also performed with the Sacramento Symphony and Monterey County Symphony. Moving to the east coast for graduate studies, Ms. Adam attended the Manhattan School of Music. She has been honored with the Hans Wildau Young Musicians Award, and been a Sacramento Concerto Competition Winner, AFS Scholar and Bank of America Artists Scholar. She has also performed at virtually every important classical music festival in the world and is also a founding member of the heralded TransAtlantic Ensemble (http://evelynulex.com/press/PressKit_EvelynUlex_TransAtlanticEnsemble.pdf), which performs in Europe and the United States, promoting a repertoire that includes works by Valerie Coleman and Jeff Scott.
The unforgettable personality of the bassoon permeating Terra Incognita is supplied by Pittsburgh, PA, native Monica Ellis, whose father, the late Clarence Oden, was a jazz saxophonist. Starting out on clarinet, saxophone and piano as a child, she was introduced to bassoon in middle school, and throughout her high school years studied with Mark Pancerev of the Pittsburgh Symphony. At Oberlin College Conservatory of Music she received a Bachelor of Music degree, then earned a Master of Music degree from Juilliard, and also attended Manhattan School of Music in the Orchestral Performance Program. In addition to performing with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Absolute Ensemble, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the American Symphony Orchestra and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, among others, Ms. Ellis has served on the faculties of the Mannes College of Music Preparatory Division, Brooklyn College School of Music and Juilliard’s Music Advancement Program. She also conducts master classes and performs solo recitals across the country during Imani Winds’ down times.
Jeff Scott, Imani Winds’ other principal composer in addition to Ms. Coleman, took up French horn at age 14 in his native Queens, NY, and earned a scholarship to Brooklyn College Preparatory Division. Lacking the financial resources to pay for music lessons, the young Mr. Scott had the good fortune of crossing paths with a teacher, Carolyn Clark, who believed in his potential and taught him pro bono during his high school years. It paid off, as he received a Bachelor’s degree from Manhattan School of Music and a Master’s degree from SUNY Stony Brook. His eclectic professional path has found him playing with the Lion King orchestra on Broadway from 1997 to 2005, and in the 1994 Broadway revival of Showboat. In addition, he is a member of the Alvin Ailey and Dance Theater of Harlem Orchestras (since 1995) and has performed under the direction of Wynton Marsalis and Arturo O’Farrill with the Lincoln Center Jazz and Afro-Latin Jazz orchestras. He has also performed on movie soundtracks scored by Terrence Blanchard and Tan Dun, and on commercial recordings by Chico O’Farrill, Freddy Cole and Jimmy Heath, among others, in addition to touring with Barbra Streisand and Luther Vandross.
Valerie Coleman: ‘Imani means ‘faith’ in Swahili. There was magic in that name. But I think over the years the whole aspect of faith—faith in each other; trust—faith also manifests itself in trust. We’ve had to learn to trust each other over the years, musically, socially, emotionally, and that has manifested itself in such a way that maybe the best is yet to come. I hope so.’
Terra Incognita & Imani Winds: The Backstory
TheBluegrassSpecial.com Interview with Valerie Coleman
Let's go back to the beginning of Terra Incognita. Does it start with commissioning these particular pieces?
The album idea actually came about a year ago, around January or February of 2009. The question is always put to the group, “What are you going to do next?” “What are you going to record next?” So we had these three pieces—one we had just finished, “Terra Incognita”; the other that we were touring at the time, and for that matter are still touring, Jason Moran’s “Cane.” And the third was “Kites” by Paquito D’River, which we had commissioned in 2005. So it seemed overdue for that piece to be recorded. After throwing around several ideas, we decided on those three pieces to record, thinking that in being grouped together they would provide a power-packed album. And the common thread was that each piece had such a unique sound that it actually all went under this idea of “terra incognita,” or “unknown lands.” The common thread I expressed to the group was that these are jazz masters. Jason Moran is a jazz master of the future, while the other two are the masters of the present and the past.
These three compositions are of such a personal nature. In a sense, we take our journeys through life and when we get a chance to reflect on that journey, or on our heritage, we may uncover some unknown lands in our personal histories. I thought that might have been part of the concept as well.
I think the pieces did speak to the growth of Imani Winds in our own discoveries and how improvisation actually came into play more and more as we were learning. By the time this album was released we were in our thirteenth year. We’re going into our fourteenth year—how crazy is that? But along the way there were many twists and turns that we did not expect. Looking back, I’m just amazed at how much growth we’ve had as musicians and as individuals. I think in that way it does parallel the music quite a bit.
The package too seems to connect everything together. The cover art being one of Henri Rousseau’s jungle scenes, showing the tiger in pursuit of the buffalo, fits so well because the painting is dark-hued and dense—it’s a jungle, after all—
There’s mystery, there’s danger to it—
And it’s flecked with bright, striking, life affirming colors in the flowers. If I had to characterize the mood of the album as reflected in these three compositions, I’d say both the title and the cover art do a good job of capturing the ambience of Terra Incognita. There’s a searching quality about it, a mysterious quality, moments of foreboding. And it starts with a minor key phrase that opens the first movement of Jason’s “Cane”—
Yes, it’s dark.
Moments of quiet contemplation and soul searching permeate the compositions, but each one also has sunny passages intermingling with the cloudy ones. At the end of Paquito’s piece a carefree, hopeful feeling arises, especially in the final few seconds when excited discourse breaks out among the instruments in “Wind Chimes,” the last section of “Kites.”
It’s interesting to me that you brought up the dark sounds at the beginning of Jason Moran’s piece. That movement is exactly about that—it’s about the middle passage [Ed. Note: titled “Coin Coin’s Narrative”]. So those colors he’s giving—the dramatic, tutu hits—quarter-note hits at the beginning—they are dark, and have a sense of terror but at the same time a sense of wonder. Now that I think about it, the middle passage, the journey of music that it is, through his piece and through Piquet’s piece as well—because his piece is about living in Cuba, coming to the U.S. Then of course Wayne, he’s just one big journey (laughs). No matter how you look at him, he’s one big journey.
The liner notes reveal some interesting and different approaches to getting these works from the composers’ hands to your final recorded version. First and foremost, how closely you worked with Jason on “Cane.” And how Wayne Shorter gave you “Terra Incognita” kind of as a bare-bones composition with no suggestions of texture or dynamics and said, essentially, “go for it.”
That’s exactly right.
A 1:20 snippet of the 2:45 first movement of Jason Moran’s “Cane” suite commissioned expressly by Omani Winds and leading off the Terra Incognita album.
Says Moran: ‘At this point in my creative life, lineage is a key theme. I feel this on three levels: (1) the aforementioned family lineage, (2) the jazz piano lineage and (3) the path of American history at large. I have composed pieces that scratch the surface of these ruminations. But I've yet to dig that deep into the resources the Southern landscape provides. What awaits me there? A beer at a blues joint, locusts and cicadas, cotton fields, fried chicken and PLANTATIONS? As a jazz musician interfacing with stereotypes and expectations is important. As a contemporary musician, sometimes it's about shunning the stereotype and other times it's about playing into the stereotype — magnifying it until it's abstracted.
‘My commission, ‘Cane,’ for Imani Winds is a 4 movement piece that is inspired by the landscape and sounds Cane River, Louisiana. Cane River runs through the northern town, Natchitoches, that my ancestors made home dating back to the early 1700s. I am interested in the way that multiple periods are brought together within the same time line, and how they interact not only aesthetically... but based on the contextual factors in which the works were written... setting up historical antipodes that swim towards conflict, then arrive at the possibility of resolution.’
‘Natchitoches to New York,’ the fourth movement of Jason Moran’s ‘Cane’ suite commissioned for the Terra Incognita album.
Imani Winds has recorded Ravel, Piazzolla, Mongo Santamaria, performing compositions that existed before you came to them. But on "Cane," Jason Moran, the composer, was in the studio with you. What was that process like?
From the beginning, since we already knew Jason, there was camaraderie and a known element because of the personal chemistry between him and us. So him sitting down with us was very much like all of us sitting in the back yard for a barbecue. It was very relaxed like that. But at the same time Jason was telling us his story, his lineage, oh, my goodness! The whole room was really quiet and almost brought to tears, it was so intense for each of us. So when he did come in with the rough draft and was telling us the story, I think the story was powerful enough that not only did it shine through the music, but also we were able to translate it even more so through our instruments. Also, we shared baby pictures and things like that. He had just had twins at the time, and his wife came in and she talked to us—and this is something that’s unique. Not only did we hear from the composer, but we heard from the composer’s wife as well. As she was talking to us about what Jason’s style of music is and what it means to him. So it was a really profound experience. But it’s pretty standard for us to work with composers as they put the piece together or when it’s in its initial stages. As long as they have something we can play on the spot, that’s when we go in and read through it, and talk about it, and of course with any kind of working with composers you talk about orchestration, what works on the instruments, what doesn’t. But even more so, how our extended techniques can influence the interpretation as well. Basically getting permission to do certain interpretations. That is the biggest thing.
We just did a performance of it in Bryant Park, in July. It was videotaped, and we sent Jason the video. He wrote back and said, “You guys took my piece to a different place. I never thought it would be where it is now.” That was really flooring for us, but at the same time we just thought about Natchitoches, the plantation, we thought about all these things. His imagery is something that resonates in all of us, because our individual heritages speak of that as well. So, you know, he’s like a brother to us. It was going to home to family—it was a family reunion—to play that piece.
Were there any particular stumbling blocks to getting that piece right, or did it all proceed smoothly in the studio?
It went pretty smoothly. Jason did a great job with orchestration from jump, which is very surprising because he had never worked or written for this combination of instruments. I think it’s pretty common knowledge that composers fear the quintet. Nobody wants to write for wind quintet because it’s five different instruments, five different sounds; you’re not going to get the homogenous sound that a string quartet gets, so there’s a challenge. You stack the instruments in a certain way you’re going to get a chord that’s muddy, and if you flip it around it’s going to be clear. But who would think of that? Who would know that, until you’ve had the actual experience of writing for wind quintet? But I think the fact that Jason is a pianist helped quite a bit in terms of the chordal structure, the orchestration, everything. He was able to use his imagination in such a way that helped us to blend.
Now don’t get me wrong. When we did sit in rehearsal with him, we did work on stacking chords in different ways to find out which chords were more impactful. So there was a little bit of that, but he did an amazing job considering this was his first time ever writing for wind quintet.
Wayne Shorter ‘isn’t a person who’s going to babble or say a whole lot with a lot of notes. He’ll just come out with one note, and that note will sound like the truth. It hits you to the core. How can one note hit you to the core the way it does? How can one note make you want to say ‘Amen!’ But Wayne has that. It’s not just the tone; anybody can get a great tone. It’s about the spirit that’s behind it. It wasn’t a technical thing we learned from him; it was more a metaphysical thing.’—Valerie Coleman
(Wayne Shorter painting from artist Lyn Roden’s Jazz Art series. Individual portraits are for sale at http://www.lynrodden.com/index.html. Ms. Roden can be reached via email at [email protected].)
In our June interview you spoke of Wayne and your exact quote was that he “transformed the way we looked at music.” Exactly how did he do that and how are you as a group changed by that experience?
I tell you what, in watching Wayne perform, there’s so much energy swirling around him, and Wayne isn’t even playing. He’ll just look around, he’ll survey the land, so to speak, and then he’ll put his instrument to his mouth at just the right time—and you never know what the right time is. Nobody can guess that, but Wayne knows. But he slowly puts it up to his mouth, and then he plays one note—and usually that’s it. That one note, one phrase, something like that. He isn’t a person who’s going to babble or say a whole lot with a lot of notes. He’ll just come out with one note, and that note will sound like the truth. It hits you to the core. How can one note hit you to the core the way it does? How can one note make you want to say “Amen!” But Wayne has that. It’s not just the tone; anybody can get a great tone. It’s about the spirit that’s behind it. And it isn’t about the intonation either. Because great artists may not have the best intonation from time to time. But there’s a spiritual level. He’s a shaman, and it comes through in his music. So when we hear that note it feels like he’s touching the hand of God, and we all want that. We all as musicians want to touch the hand of God, we want to feel the divine, we want to be elevated. So that very feeling in itself, witnessing that, was something that transformed us. I can only speak for myself, in that it gave me the realization of what the spirit feels like when it moves in you. Maybe the Holy Spirit, I don’t know. Identifying it, hearing it, experiencing it, being able to identify it for what it is when it comes back around—because it did come around many, many times as we toured with Wayne—and building the desire to attain that too by finding the truth in your own instrument, through placement, through timing, through spirituality, through thoughtfulness. It wasn’t a technical thing we learned from him; it was more a metaphysical thing.
You know, Wayne gave us a whole lot of time to think about it. We used to go to our hotel rooms and just sit there and be like, “Damn. What just happened? How did it happen? Is this going to keep happening like this? How do we get back there?”
What is important to you that the public hears in “Terra Incognita”?
It’s not what they hear but what they feel, what washes over them as we play it. We really want that spirit to wash over them, but at the same time we want Wayne to be present in every note that we play. John Patitucci talks about how his touring with Wayne is about Wayne. It ain’t about anybody else. It ain’t about me bringing my compositions to the table or me playing a stand-alone solo. It’s about the essence of what Wayne’s doing. John’s mentality is, We have to honor Wayne while he is here with us, we have to keep his legacy going after he’s departed. We have to make the most out of this man’s music right now. That was the sense when we were playing with them—honor what Wayne is and what he’s done. And be with him as he’s creating new things in the moment as well. With “Terra,” we really did take that to heart. So when people are really feeling the piece, they should be feeling Wayne.
‘It’s pretty common knowledge that composers fear the quintet. Nobody wants to write for wind quintet because it’s five different instruments, five different sounds; you’re not going to get the homogenous sound that a string quartet gets, so there’s a challenge.’
You founded this group in 1997, and in the few accounts I’ve read of its origins I really have not come across an explanation for why you felt the need to assemble such a group as this. What were your ambitions in assembling Imani Winds?
I tell you what, I’m about to turn 40 years old, and I’m going through a lot of stuff right now just thinking about life and, oh, my goodness, I’m at a milestone. This is some different stuff. But it does make me think back about the steps I’ve taken over the years, and why and how things fall into place. I realized that it’s not a coincidence the way things fall into place the way they do for anybody in their life. How you meet people at certain times in your life that needed to be there then in order for you to take a certain path. I think for Imani Winds, I can’t really tell you it was an ambitious thing. On the surface level I could easily say that, and I’ve said over the years that I’ve always dreamt of having a wind quintet and people of color coming together and using their interpretations to actually bring a different sound into the chamber music world. I could say that. But I think now I’ve realized it was more of a grand design. That maybe in a lot of ways I was put on this path and led down this path, because of all the things Imani Winds has gone through over the years. We’ve had our ups and our downs, and our ups have been high and our downs have been tragic at the same time. But it must be some kind of grand design that has led us together in the first place, and then bring us to where we are now.
Had you crossed paths before with the other musicians you invited into Imani Winds?
It goes back to that idea of meeting people at key moments. I think it started when I met Mariam at Aspen Music Festival. I think she had just graduated from high school, and I was just graduating from my undergrad. I met her and we started hanging out. Then we fell out of touch, but then I moved to New York to go to grad school, and she happened to move at the same time. She called my mom back home in Kentucky, saying, “Where’s Val?” My mom told her I was in New York. When we reconnected, the idea started to come to the fore a little bit more. I had always talked about it. Reconnecting with Mariam gave me more impetus to do it, along with the name Imani Winds popping into my head. That gave me the energy and strength to call up everybody, cold turkey. I didn’t now anybody else in the group at that point. Toyin (Spellman-Diaz, oboe), and then she recommended Monica (Ellis, bassoon). Then…I can’t remember how Jeff (Scott, French horn) came in (laughs). We always kid around about that. It’s like that with good friends—sometimes you can’t remember the first day you actually met. I guess because it always feels like it was meant to be.
What is the origin of the name and what does it mean in terms of the group’s goals?
Imani means “faith” in Swahili, and at the time it seemed like the perfect name. I had no rhyme or reason why. But at that time Kwanzaa was the “in” thing, so Imani Winds seemed to snap. There was magic in that name. But I think over the years the whole aspect of faith—faith in each other; trust—faith also manifests itself in trust. We’ve had to learn to trust each other over the years, musically, socially, emotionally, and that has manifested itself in such a way that maybe the best is yet to come. I hope so.
Do you all see each other apart from musical endeavors? Do you socialize much off stage?
Since we spend about ten months a year on the road…
The question answers itself.
The question answers itself. We do become dependent on each other socially and emotionally as well. But when it’s time for vacation, Jeff takes off for Brazil. Monica hangs out with her nephews; she wants quality time with her family. Toyin just had a baby. Things are changing and we’re all growing and we have to tend to our own personal things during vacation time. Of course we’re texting and emailing, so it’s not really vacation. Business goes on as usual, or the bullshit as well, like, “Whatcha doin’?” You know, calling people up for no reason. That still goes on. But we try to make an effort not to contact each other, because we know we’re going to see each other for the rest of the year. When we get on a plane, when we check in at the airport, the ticket agent will say, “We can’t find these seats together for you.” And we say, “No, no, no, that’s okay. We see each other all the time. You don’t have to sit us together.”
An interview with Imani Winds: on repertoire, identity, funding, the challenges facing and opportunities available to the wind quintet, intercut with live performances. Mariam Adam: ‘We cross over a lot. We have really learned to explore everything. Imani Winds is more of an inclusive group rather than an exclusive group.’
Has Imani Winds met any resistance in the classical world for being so multicultural in its repertoire, and so out there, really? For making gospel, jazz, Latin music as much a part of what you do as Ravel or other strictly classical composers? Is there a segment of the audience that wishes you would just stick to Ravel or write pieces like Ravel’s?
I think the difficulties we experience do not come from the audience. It’s from the industry around us. There are not a whole lot of difficulties because people are getting used to what we do and who we are. But for many, many years, since we do so many types of music, you’ve hit it on the head—it’s hard to label, it’s hard to package, it’s hard to advertise us, it’s hard to describe us, for that matter. Sometimes our manager will say to us, “Who are you?” And our response is, “We are who we are, we play what we want to play.” And he says, “Not good enough. We need a label for you. I can’t do my job unless you help me describe you better.” This very thing is something we’re going to be discussing with a consultant so we can put into words what we are more eloquently, more succinctly and in a more unified way. That’s a challenge in itself. But in terms of how people perceive us, the audience, they’re the last to be like, “You guys confuse us.” They get it.
If nothing else, you certainly have expanded the repertoire for wind quintet, isn’t it fair to say?
I think so, and it’s only just begun. Other groups before us have commissioned so many different works that have been the standards now for decades. For example, the Dorian Wind Quintet—and not many people know about these groups, because wind quintet as its own entity is not a popular thing; it’s not common knowledge; it’s not string quartet. But there are groups, like Dorian Wind Quintet, the Philadelphia Wind Quintet and the Quintet of the Americas here in New York, have been together for decades, before the members of Imani were even born. And they have such a long legacy. Their legacy dwarfs ours in terms of commissioning. We’ve only begun with the commissioning. When we do engage a composer we want to make sure that the piece they contribute and their style, we want to make sure it has the most impact for what we’re doing.
Throughout your history the other members have contributed in various ways as arrangers, but you and Jeff are really the primary composers in the group. Do you hear a distinction between the type of work you bring to Imani Winds and what Jeff brings?
Absolutely. Absolutely. To me, Jeff is a master of orchestration. He will get the most difficult sounds out of the group, but it will be so easy to play individually. Me, I’m just the opposite—I make people work! (laughs) They look at me and say, “Dear God, Valerie, what have you given us? This is hard!” But a year down the line—a year—of playing the music, the members of the group will come around and say, “This really works.” It doesn’t mean my music is better or his is better, it’s two different approaches at creating sounds. Even though we have two different styles, the styles come from a unified place. If we were to sing a phrase, me and Jeff, we would probably sing it the same way. But when we put it on paper it’s completely different, and then how it translates into interpretation comes out completely different too. So it’s really kind of freakish, how different it is.
When your season begins and you’re playing a lot of live shows for an extended period of time, is it possible for you to start writing during that time, or do you need to be sealed away alone, nothing on the calendar, no distractions, in order to work on a new composition?
Well, I won’t lie—the best time to write is during vacation time. Jeff, like me, he’s getting the most out of his silent time. He’s down there in Brazil. Who am I kidding? I’m thinking he’s in Brazil, sitting up in his apartment, writing. But I know he’s on the beach. But traditionally we do our most efficient writing when we have time away from the group. It’s hard to write when you’re on the road, because you do the recital, and then after the recital people want you to come out and party with them, go to social events, go to fundraisers, things like that. And there have been many times when I’ve said, “I can’t do it. I have to go back to the hotel because I have a deadline on a piece I’m writing.” That happens more often than not. It is a challenge. I always tell myself, Wynton does it, Paquito does it, jazz artists do it all the time. I can learn.
I’m used to talking to songwriters—country, blues, bluegrass, roots music in general—who always mention having notebooks filled with snippets of ideas. A verse here, a chorus there, sometimes only a title to develop into a song. In many cases those songs are finished months, if not years, later. In writing a classical composition, do you have notebooks filled with half-developed ideas started at some odd hour on the road, waiting to be fleshed out when you get home?
Absolutely. I tell you what, I do it on my computer now, because technology is such that you can notate faster on a computer as if you’re just typing, as opposed to drawing out a grand staff and plugging in the notes one note at a time. I actually do both. I do carry around a little notebook, but months down the line when I do come back to it, I could swear I was smoking crack or something. I’ll look at the idea and wonder what in the world I was thinking. Or I don’t remember it. So I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t write it down anymore because once I write it down, it leaves my body and I forget. So I keep it inside and let it stew. Sometimes I do forget, but it’s never fully forgotten. It marinates and comes back around as an idea, and sometimes I even realize the idea I had months ago is here, five months later, but it’s more developed. Letting your subconscious do the work for you. Of both methods, I find the latter to be more efficient for my own personal writing process.
Your Grammy nominated 2005 album, The Classical Underground, strikes me as a real coming of age record for Imani Winds. The playing is so assured and engaging, and the six songs seem to summarize so well what the group is about—from the spiritual resonance in Jeff’s “Homage to Duke” to your multicultural “Concerto for Wind Quintet” to the traditional gospel of “Steal Away” and of course the Latin influence of Paquito’s “Aires Tropicales” and Astor Piazzolla’s “Uber Tango,” and the melting pot of Lalo Schifrin’s “La Nouvelle Orleans.” When I mentioned The Classical Underground album during our June interview, you spoke of it in hushed tones. It was evident how special that album is to you. What was its impact on Imani Winds’ direction?
That’s a very hard question. The album represented a lot of youthful fire for us, and it was a quintessential representation of what we were at that time. It didn’t necessarily have an impact so much as it was spewing out our feelings, our thoughts, our hopes, our dreams into that one album. I think the impact came when the Grammy nomination happened, because it told us that people believed in what we did. That’s a succinct answer, but that’s pretty much it, I think.
I know you’re focused on promoting Terra Incognita, but what other musical frontiers do you want Imani Winds to explore? Where do you go from here?
Right now we’re learning the maqom, Middle Eastern scales (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_music). And that in itself is a challenge, because we have to reprogram the very way we listen to a scale—the diatonic scale does not apply here. And we have to figure out how to manufacture these notes that are in-between real notes or real western notes. How to figure that out on our instruments, how to listen for them, how to duplicate that and bring them up on commands to a second nature level. So that’s been the big challenge. The reason we’ve been learning the maqam is because we’ve commissioned Simon Shaheen (http://www.simonshaheen.com/), a Palestinian composer. I know that right now the tone of the country, the tone of the world, is…I wouldn’t say anti-Muslim but this may not be the most popular project in the world that we’re doing right now. But Imani Winds always goes for things that make us grow, probably painfully so, because there’s a lot of pain in reprogramming what has happened. It’s really shock therapy in a lot of ways, but there’s a lot of soulfulness to Middle Eastern music, and we’re learning that through Simon, who is a gentleman and really decent, good person. And his music is absolutely gorgeous. We’ll be receiving his piece in the fall, and we hope we’re able to do his music justice by learning the scales, so we can sound authentic.
The finished product, Terra Incognita. You’ve lived it with for awhile. Don’t be shy here—what’s your take on it now that those three compositions are sequenced and packaged into a single entity?
I hope it will change the way people look at chamber music within an album. You really have to come at it through the perspective of Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain, or any of Wayne Shorter’s albums. There's a seamlessness to this album, and Wayne's piece in particular is the type of work that you can just listen to over and over again and always find something new in it.
I can't say enough how special this album is to us. It's something else—it really is.