Imani Winds will blow into New Orleans on April 7 and 8, bringing Grammy-nominated chops, fresh contemporary repertoire and a starry resume that includes work with Yo-Yo Ma, Wayne Shorter and other music legends. The virtuosic New York quintet also brings a message: Today’s artists are tearing down the barriers that once separated jazz, classical, pop and roots music.
Translation: When the group plays for the New Orleans Friends of Music, the repertoire will include a commission from jazz composerJason Moran, an arrangement of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” a Debussy arrangement, and original compositions by Imani players Valerie Coleman (flute) and Jeff Scott (French horn).
“Wind quintets have always been the stepchild of the concert world – the kind of thing presenters felt obliged to showcase every few years,” said Imani clarinetist Mariam Adam. “Even we were a little bored by the small, standard repertoire for such groups. So we decided to change the equation.”
Since forming in 1997, the group has commissioned lots of new music, especially from improvisers with a taste for penning notated compositions: Chick Corea, Paquito D’Rivera, Stefon Harris, Danilo Perez, Shorter and Moran. The group also showcases classically trained composers of a modernist stamp: Ligeti, Berio, Piazzolla, and Americans such as Elliot Carter and John Harbison.
“If the mix of music feels natural to us, that’s partly because we live in New York,” Adam said. “It’s a cosmopolitan, multiethnic place and we’re always running into something that makes us open our ears – a Spanish guitar in a coffee shop, an oud player in a club, the crazy jumble of music heard on the street. We would have to be dead not to feel it.”
That kind of stuff was not on the syllabus when the Imani players attended conservatories, and it still hasn’t changed much, Adam said.
“Student musicians are at the mercy of teachers, and the teachers are at the mercy of some very narrow course requirements,” she said. “We like to get up on our soap box and reassure young players that they can plunge into different genres and traditions with virtuosity and integrity.”
The group’s long association with Shorter -- widely regarded as the greatest living jazz composer -- also has marked their approach. (Shorter’s quartet headlines at the 2013 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on May 5.)
‘When we toured with Shorter, he had us perform a set on our own – both before and after his band – and there was always a huge difference in our playing by the end of those shows,” Adam said. “It frees you to see a genius improviser take six pages of sheet music, cut it up in real time and create a new mosaic with the results. We started to think like improvisers, too. He turned our ears upside down in a way that gave us tremendous confidence, and a feeling that risks were always worth taking.”
Does the Imani approach sound too heady for you?
Just listen to them play ... whatever. Bassoonist Monica Ellis usually takes the bass line, pumping out undulant rhythms and harmonic ideas. Jeff Scott soars ahead on the French horn. Coleman’s flute, Adam’s clarinet and the oboe of Toyin Spellman-Diaz weave a supple musical fabric.
As an ensemble, the Imani Winds cultivate the big, rich sound one associates with classical players -- and they also display the daring, respond in-the moment qualities one associates with a swinging jazz combo.
Here’s how Adam describes the experience: “When we are really playing, it’s as if there was a sixth performer on stage, someone moving between, a conductor that helps us feel the music in our bodies, and that moves us physically. That’s what it means to be an ensemble. It’s magic.”