Imani Winds: unapologetically bold

Adventurous ensemble’s residency at Chamber Music Northwest culminates in accessible, original music that embraces change and American culture

What’s special about Imani Winds, besides their overall badassery as a woodwind quintet, is that the group boasts two composers—horn player Jeff Scott and flutist Valerie Coleman. Although Coleman is taking a break from performing with the group, her presence (physical and spiritual) added considerably to the joy the group brought to their recently concluded residency with Chamber Music Northwest.

Over the last year and a half, the quintet performed a whole slew of bold, intimate concerts around Portland, in the usual venues (Lincoln Hall, Kaul Auditorium) as well as less conventional spots like Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium, Revolution Hall, and the OMSI Planetarium. They’ve even routinely hosted an instrument petting zoo, where children can come play with the group’s flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon.

Imani Winds: Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017-18 artists in residence

The group also got better from the beginning of their residency to the end, as their usual repertoire (arrangements of Rite of Spring and The Planets, commissioned works by Simon Shaheen and Reena Esmail) gradually gave way to a lovely collaboration with local dance troupe BodyVox in April: a delirious evening of film and dance set to arrangements of Chopin and Brahms (and Scott’s Homage to Duke), Imani performing right there on stage with all the dancers. Finally we came to this summer’s festival and the large-scale compositions they were all talking about last year: Scott’s Passion for Bach and Coltrane and Coleman’s Muhammad Ali portrait Shot Gun Houses.

After all that, I was sorry to see them go.

Great Scott

Imani has always had several Jeff Scott compositions in its repertoire, but his Passion for Bach and Coltrane—premiered a few years back and performed at Kaul Auditorium on July 5th—marked the apotheosis of his time as a composer during the group’s CMNW residency. His other compositions have been good, sure (last year’s performance of his “Titilayo” in Whitsell Auditorium being a high point), but this was something else altogether, a real highlight of the entire fest.

Sadly, it’s relatively rare for important music to also be good music, and it’s especially rare for referential music to have any real originality, but Scott handled his interpolations of Bach and Coltrane with grace, confidence, and a unique compositional voice which seems to have matured just in the couple years since I started listening to him. I felt his original music was the Passion’s best feature, the more overt references functioning mainly as contextualizing brackets and launching points for the pure joy of playing with other people’s music—a joy that classical musicians can sometimes lose sight of, since they’re almost always playing other people’s music.

Composer Jeff Scott and poet A.B. Spellman chat during pre-concert CMNW Musical Conversation. Photo: Judy Blankenship

“I wanted to combine the two arts I love the most: classical music and jazz,” Scott said in a pre-concert talk with poet A.B. Spellman. Bach and Coltrane made an ideal meeting point, as both were engaged with the search “for oneness with spirituality.” Though Spellman had doubts about classical and jazz meldings, saying they are “very seldom accomplished, though many have tried,” he praised Scott’s music, saying the composer “does both forms with integrity, with a bona fide jazz trio and two classical groups.”

The two classical groups were Imani Winds and the Harlem Quartet, and the bona fide jazz trio consisted of pianist Alex Brown, bassist Zach Brown, and drummer Neal Smith (all but Imani playing their CMNW premieres). The poet himself was on stage too, nestled in with the band, reading his poetry, weaving it in and out of the music. “Through beauty, past knowledge, here I am, Dear John, back at the beginning, better.”

Passion takes inspiration from two composers, and so required two opening movements. The Bach opening, “Aria,” started off all relaxed: a nice, breezy, brush-driven, bass-strutting groove, sensitive piano riffing on the Goldberg Variations, loose but focused. The Coltrane opening followed, with a big dramatic flourish: “Psalm,” from the end of A Love Supreme, an immediate immersion in Coltrane’s unmistakable sound world, a sonic storm, rolling toms and cymbals, the whole group crying out that distinctive hymn of spiritual longing and gratitude.

Scott as a horn player is at his best when he can really let ‘er rip, blaring out magnificent melodies across that colossal acoustic architecture. The large ensemble was well-suited to Coltrane’s rich harmonic landscape, not so much like the classic quartet that recorded A Love Supreme as the massive groups we hear on other Coltrane albums, most notably the ever-popular Africa/Brass and the spiky, nearly inaccessible Ascension. Coltrane’s catchy-as-hell “Resolution” followed, completing the opening sequence with a very nice bass solo, a brief solo from oboist Spellman-Diaz, and a longer solo from Harlem Quartet violinist Ilmar Gavilán, while bandleader Scott held up one hand to count measures and cue the ensemble’s return. Bach and Coltrane have now been introduced.

The following four movements formed the work’s substantial core, the overt Coltrane lifts and more subtle Bach infusions simply the frame for the story-spell Scott and Spellman wove. “Nazareth” narrated the crucifixion itself, and unfolded like a medieval mystery play. Spellman’s poetry was incisive, lyrical, brutal: “the soldiers thought this was a routine dispatch, some slave; a crowd always turns up for a lynching; a manual for crucifixion: always stab the heart to make sure he is dead, so you don’t bury him alive—no need to be cruel.” The ensemble echoed some choice Spellman lines, as in a ritual or a trance or a liturgy: “they will taunt him…they will taunt him; die humiliated…die humiliated; you’ve got a mess…you’ve got a mess.”

The music was dramatic and well-crafted, emotionally layered, a little bit like good horror movie music. A death march started up, customary Dies Irae tease over a slow jazzy funk beat. That funk beat carried all through the passage, interspersed with Rite of Spring death knells and convulsions, inexorable and horrific, like a passion play is supposed to be. Just this one long movement is a substantial and meaningful composition in itself.

Imani Winds, Harlem Quartet, pianist Alex Brown, bassist Zach Brown, and drummer Neal Smith, and poet A.B. Spellman performed Jeff Scott’s “Passion for Bach and Coltrane” at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

The heaviness subsided with “Variation 13,” neo-Baroque style film music over a 5/4 minor key Latin groove, overtly Schifrin-esque but with shades of Don Ellis’s French Connection soundtrack and Quincy Jones’s score for In Cold Blood. The soloists really got to cut loose on this one: a long and intricate piccolo solo from current Imani flutist Julietta Curenton, birdsongs transmogrifying into fancy minor key riffs; Dover’s solo going the other way, grooving on the rhythm section’s mambo chromaticism before breaking out into a pack of rapid squirrel-chasing wiggles.

Curenton got the spotlight again on “Groovin Low.” Those snare drum brushes came back, stirring the beat with a mellifluous bass and that famous “Bourée” circle-of-fifths routine, a serious coffee shop vibe. And over all of it a long, slow, heartbreakingly gorgeous flute solo. “My swing is more mellow these days,” Spellman said. “You will find me with the really slow smile, and the really cool shades.”

Curenton’s flute also suffused “A Hug for Gonzalo”—another funky Latin groove, this time a jagged riff played in unison by bass and bassoon, Ellis’s brazen tone a good match for the percussive upright. Scott made good use of the Latin vibe that shows up in a lot of his music: it’s already a well-hybridized art form, so it makes a terrific medium for blending jazz and classical. And the cinematic qualities can’t be overstated: narrative drive and emotional depth defined the music much more than anything so banal as strict Baroque counterpoint or cute in-jokes (though there was some of both). No, this was a song for fourteen artists, rooted in multiple pasts, all grooving on what Spellman called “the heart’s polyrhythms.”

In the closing number, Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement,” Spellman delivered a final pronouncement: “Death is the answer to a question the living cannot learn.” Dover stole the ending with his big, almost aggressively long clarinet solo, and then—just like on the album—the voices all started up: “A love supreme! A love supreme! A love supreme!”

Imani Winds hornist and composer Jeff Scott at CMNW’s Family Concert & Instrument Petting Zoo. Photo: Just Dandy Photography + Social Media; Kimmie Fadem

At that pre-concert talk, one audience question got a good laugh: “Have you thought about what Bach would think of what you’ve done?” (Apparently the querent wasn’t concerned with what Coltrane would think). Scott smiled that big smile of his and said “I’m afraid to do that—I’m gonna leave that to you folks. Tell you what, if you like it applaud, and if you don’t like it,” he paused and the grin widened, “applaud anyway.” Oh, we applauded all right, and I don’t think it’s because we didn’t like it.

Scott’s other composition in this year’s festival—Fantasy on 1967, commissioned for CMNW by Carl and Margery Abbott in celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary—lacked the Passion’s depth and originality, but was a charming and entertaining exercise nonetheless. On the screen, a montage of that troubled year: Monterey International Pop Festival, Vietnam, the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War, the Detroit Riots, clips from Cool Hand Luke and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Hunter S. Thompson’s famous “our energy would simply prevail” line.

Imani Winds performed Jeff Scott’s ‘Fantasy on 1967’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography

A flute solo from Curenton, quickly joined by the whole group, started the suite with Neil Diamond’s (and The Monkees’) “I’m a Believer,” and it was impossible not to hear that first line in my head, “I thought love was only true in fairy tales.” The audience chuckled appreciatively at all the pop hit references: flute and oboe digging into the keyboard lick from “Light My Fire” while Dover’s bass clarinet did the Morrison routine; Spellman-Diaz soloing on “White Rabbit” and getting into the quarter-tone bends she does so well; Ellis’s jolly bassoon leading the way on “Lovely Rita” (if you’re only gonna include one Beatles song from 1967, “Lovely Rita” is a bold, unexpected choice); the “shananana” part from “Brown Eyed Girl” perhaps the most satisfying moment of the whole suite.

Coleman’s Changes

Imani’s other in-house composer, Valerie Coleman, didn’t have anything quite so grand as Scott’s Passion in the festival, but it was still a delight to hear her music and her voice. At the second week’s noon concert, Curenton, Dover, Ellis, and pianist-composer J.P. Redmond played Coleman’s “immigrant’s anthem,” A Right to Be. Ellis’s bassoon was central to this one, solo melody punctuated by grumblings from flute and clarinet and piano. The defiant, passionate shouts of Dreamers became angular jazzy riffage, with a few (improvised?) solos and a closing bit of caterwauling Dixie polyphony.

J.P. Redmond, Monica Ellis, Mark Dover, and Julietta Curenton perform Valerie Coleman’s ‘A Right to Be.’
at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography

The following Sunday, Coleman introduced her Shot Gun Houses by discussing the part of Kentucky where both she and Ali—known then as Cassius Clay—grew up. “It’s now considered a war zone by the Kentucky government, but in the day it was suburbia.” She recited a few of Ali’s memorable, oh-so-musical epithets: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see” and “I’m so mean I make medicine sick” and “If you even dream of beating me, you better wake up and apologize.” Coleman explained that “this play of wit was part of life growing up—a matter of pride, and survival.”

As with Fantasy on 1967, a slideshow above the stage accompanied the entire performance, a nice touch for this biographical piece of music. We first saw a house for sale, decrepit, the titular shotgun shack; soft dramatic chords surged underneath a yearning, angular melody in the clarinet, a plaintive cello line, bits of anguished polytonality. Struggle, pain, pride, aspiration, ambition; a photo of Ali on the railroad tracks. Joining the Harlem Quartet, CMNW artistic director David Shifrin once again showed off the sweetness of a single note.

The Harlem Quartet and David Shifrin performed Valerie Coleman’s ‘Shot Gun Houses’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography

The music was, like Scott’s, cinematic: this is quite common for the more successful contemporary composers, or anyways those who haven’t shut themselves off from the vital culture of film music but have instead embraced its relevance to contemporary audiences. A striking “fight bell” motif ran through one movement (a musical portrayal of Ali’s 1960 fight at the Summer Olympics in Rome), a pizzicato-and-clarinet “ding” marking each of the fight’s three rounds. Busy triplets in viola and cello, weaving and dodging as fight music gives way to sad music, stalking music, sweating music, dark pizzicato chords in a basically tonal idiom punctuated by blue notes and crunchy dissonances. It reminded me of John Williams’s Jaws soundtrack—not that notorious two-note theme but the rest of the score, all songs of danger and struggle and innocence and violence and ultimate triumph.

At the second of this year’s post-New@Noon “coffee with the composers” discussion—a regular and most welcome Chamber Music Northwest feature these last few years—one audient wanted to know where the composers saw themselves in ten years. Coleman had a wonderful answer: “I hope to create a music that changes the fabric of humanity, changes minds, and changes hearts.” To another question about the future of classical music, she answered, “artists are getting more and more unapologetically bold; that inspires others and creates a chain reaction.”

Imani Winds’ Valerie Coleman and Jeff Scott at Chamber Music Northwest’s Coffee with the Composer. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Just before the last performance of their residency, playing Lalo Schifrin’s La Nouvelle Orleans, Ellis said, “before we play, I wanna say on behalf of the group, it’s a pleasure to share the stage with our chamber music brethren. It’s been a joy to be here two summers in a row.”

The feeling, of course, was mutual. Attitudes like these are another part of what makes Imani Winds great. They way they put these attitudes into practice—with commissions, collaborations, original compositions, and conversations that double as masterclasses—is why they were one of the best things about CMNW two years running.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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