Way back in March of 2009 I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Imani Winds bassoonist and Pittsburgh native Monica Ellis. I was particularly interested in hearing about Imani’s Legacy Commissioning Project launched in 2007 to commemorate the ensemble’s 10th Anniversary. Through the LCP, Imani has commissioned ten composers of color to create new works for wind quintet. Imani have been premiering the new works as they’ve been completed and, with the release of Terra Incognita, we can all begin to share in the fruit of this ambitious project.
Terra Incognita includes LCP commission Cane, a work by critically acclaimed jazz pianist Jason Moran. Cane traces the journey of Moran’s ancestors, brought as slaves from Togo to what is now Louisiana, and focuses in particular on the life of Marie Therese Coin Coin. Coin Coin’s master gave her her freedom after she had given birth to several of his children. A remarkably forward-thinking woman, Coin Coin was eventually able to establish her own plantation and purchase her children’s freedom as well.
Cane is infused with clave-like rhythms that locate the music within Coin Coin’s African roots. The rhythms are layered together and often create asymmetries that constantly push the music forward, and to my ears, portray Coin Coin’s irrepressible drive to make a better life for herself and her family.
As impressive an achievement as Cane is, it has plenty of good company on an album that also features legendary jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s title track composition Terra Incognita and Paquito D’Rivera’s Kites. Clarinetist D’Rivera and pianist Alex Brown join the quintet for Kites and contribute some of the album’s most direct forays into jazz. But what’s amazing about Terra Incognita as a whole is not how jazzy it is, but how these three outstanding composers explore the wind quintet as a creative medium. The results are refreshingly difficult to pin down in terms of generic influences and in this regard the album lives up to its name.
As I’ve said many times, Pittsburgh New Music Net isn’t about criticism (dangerous work that should be left safely in the hands of trained professionals), it’s about new music advocacy, and as such, I’m happy to tell you why I think a composer, performer, or composition are significant. Imani Winds have described the goals of the Legacy Commissioning Project as follows:
- To introduce to audiences of all ages instruments that they may not have seen or heard before; and to show by example to African-America and Latino communities that there is a place in the Classical music world for them.
- To champion the works of composers of under-represented cultures through diverse programming.
- To expand the language and sonority of Classical contemporary music, so that it includes styles and techniques that are non-traditional to the genre
Those are important goals, and Terra Incognita is a significant and impressive step toward achieving those goals. While it’s appropriate to celebrate the recording of Cane as a milestone in the LCP, the album as whole is infused with LCP goals. Most importantly, the success of the project can be seen in the extent to which the music regularly defies expectations, and in that regard, Terra Incognita is a place I think you’ll enjoy getting to know.