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summer breeze; Imani Winds Blow into Maverick by Peter Aaron

Comprised of flutist Valerie Coleman, oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz, clarinetist Mariam Adam, French hornist Jeff Scott, and bassoonist Monica Ellis, Imani Winds has been called North America’s premier wind quintet. Not only is the ensemble revered for its astonishing musicianship and adventurous repertoire (from Mendelssohn and other vanguard names to modernists György Ligeti and Luciano Berio to tango great Astor Piazzolla) but also for its boundary-crossing collaborations with leading jazz artists. The Grammy-nominated group will pay a much-anticipated visit to Woodstock’s venerated Maverick Concerts chamber series, delivering a program titled “A Salute to Samuel Barber at 100” on July 18 and playing one of Maverick’s acclaimed Young People’s Concerts on July 17.

“Maverick just seems to get better and better as a vibrant, eclectic festival, and our Young People’s Concerts are no exception,” says Alexander Platt, the series’ director. “Along with the amazing, path-breaking Imani Winds—arguably the greatest wind quintet in the world—we’ll be hosting a bevy of world-class, hometown talent, from Elizabeth Mitchell to Betty MacDonald to Woodstock percussion legend Garry Kvistad, leading young people in an exploration of the musical worlds of classical, contemporary, folk, world music, and jazz. I really think this is going to be the best summer of Young People’s Concerts ever.” During the lead-up to Maverick 2010, Imani’s Valerie Coleman fielded some questions via e-mail.

The July 18 concert is being billed as “A Salute to Samuel Barber at 100.” What is it about Barber’s music that you find especially unique or compelling?

To me Barber’s music is the essence of Americana, but in a different way than Copeland’s. Barber’s music reminds me of Norman Rockwell, while Copeland’s is all about the exploration and glory of settling in a new world. Barber is lemonade, Knoxville, and porch swings. Warmth, lush sounds, with an almost Brahmsian orchestration. He manages to tell a story about a way of life through his Summer Music. A life of a lazy summer day filled with adventure of its own kind.

You’re also playing on July 17 for one of Maverick’s Young People’s Concerts, and the quartet is well known for its many outreach programs. Why do you believe these types of events and programs are important?

Music is as important as a really good tale. It generates imagination, takes you places. It allows young minds to formulate questions and use their reasoning skills when they see these unusual, magical instruments create sounds from just one’s own air. In this way, it plants a seed and creates curiosity.

This curiosity develops into an interest for the arts, or an interest in picking up an instrument and seeing how much one can achieve with it. These are not only the audiences of today and tomorrow, but they are the creators of so much more. We owe it to them to give them as much as we can.

Another of Imani’s key ventures is the Legacy Commissioning Project. What is the project about?

To celebrate our 10th anniversary, we decided to commission 10 composers of color to create a lasting legacy for diversity in wind quintet music and collaborative combinations featuring our instruments (i.e., wind quintet and string quartet; wind quintet and vibraphone, etc.). The project has been so successful with the commissioning of Roberto Sierra, Jason Moran, Stefon Harris, and others that we have decided to continue it as the banner name for all of our commissions in general. The project’s next premieres include works by Danilo Perez and Simon Shaheen. We’re currently in talks with Phillip Glass to write us his only wind quintet piece.

Being an African-American/Latino classical ensemble is seen by many as an anomaly. But of course Americans of color have always played classical or classically influenced music; even long before the rise of influential composers and bandleaders like William Grant Still, Scott Joplin, James Reese Europe, or Duke Ellington. From what I understand, the decision to form a group of classical musicians of color was a very deliberate move on your part. Do you recall how you first came to the idea? How do you feel about it now, more than 10 very successful years after Imani was formed?

The idea of Imani Winds came to me while I was a student at Mannes College. The name [Swahili for faith or belief] came before the group, and was instrumental in giving me the courage to track down each individual within the New York freelance/student scene. You are right in that it was intentional to find people of color, but, at the same time, quality of ability took precedence. The idea was that people with diverse backgrounds bring their own interpretation to music and that gives creative nutrition to others. This way we grow and become more than the sum of our parts.

Speaking of prominent African-American musical figures, you also staged an acclaimed project about the great Josephine Baker, which must’ve been a lot of fun. How did that go?

It was not only enjoyable, but it taught us to expand our interpretations of music: to live life through each note and to take chances.

The quartet has certainly collaborated with some great artists and composers. Is there anyone on your wish list you haven’t gotten to yet? Any favorite collaborative moments? Anyone new currently on the horizon?

Our wish list includes Yo-Yo Ma, Quincy Jones, Pat Metheny, Ann Marie McDermott, Osvaldo Golijov, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and others. Of course, working with Wayne Shorter has been the highlight of our careers. We would love to commission him over and over again, as he is prolific and his music is transcendental. Unfortunately, funding sources are rarely ever interested in projects that continue the same collaborations. It is truly a shame, as Wayne is capable of creating a whole new library of works for our setup. We’re going to be working with the Boston Brass in a Porgy and Bess / [Miles Davis’s] Sketches of Spain concert, which is very exciting.

You have a new album, Terra Incognita [E1 Music], due out this month. What can you tell us about it?

It is the first of a set of albums under our Legacy commission project. The works that have been commissioned truly have paved a new soundscape for wind quintets and this album features three jazz artists, two of whom are iconic and one of whom is well on his way: Wayne Shorter, Paquito D’Rivera, and Jason Moran. The album is titled after the work Wayne Shorter wrote for us, and it is a magnificent work built on freedom of spirit and exploration. Actually, all three are based on freedom of either spirit or from political situations, and on how honoring one’s ancestors can give one the freedom to achieve. This album is a culmination for us, and exhibits the summit of our musical evolvements thus far. It’s the most beautiful music I’ve ever experienced and have ever been honored to play.

Maverick Concerts in Woodstock will present Imani Winds in a special Young People’s Concert on July 17; the quintet will perform “A Salute to Samuel Barber at 100” at the site on July 18.

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