Imani Winds

Baldwin Auditorium, Duke Performances

It’s tough being a woodwinds fan in the Triangle. For every small wind group that passes through the area, you can choose from at least a dozen string quartet and piano concerts—really, I counted. Throw in a preference for unusual and/or modern repertoire in the face of programmers’ heavy bias for the 19th century, and the options diminish like piccolo notes in the winter air.

So, Saturday’s Duke Performances concert by Imani Winds—a mostly woodwind quintet of flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn and bassoon that commissions new work and includes two composers—was welcome. The group routinely erases genre boundaries in its performances, as they cross from avant-garde architects like György Ligeti to New Orleans jazz to standard classical and more. Their Duke concert was no exception.

The first half of the program featured music grounded in African-American sounds and experiences: two original pieces by Imani members Jeff Scott and Valerie Coleman, plus a commissioned work by jazz pianist Jason Moran. Scott’s “Startin’ Sumthin’” seamlessly transposed ragtime into a joyous, edgy wind performance. It was a syncopated gem. Moran’s “Cane,” inspired by Jean Toomer’s brilliant Harlem Renaissance novel of the same name, was a painterly, extended meditation on family, slavery and the Louisiana landscape, unfolding like the soundtrack to a lost 1950s Hollywood period piece—one that didn’t ignore the musical culture of the folks who worked its very fields.

The music was gorgeous and evocative, even if I couldn’t help feeling something was missing in the writing. Toomer’s Cane was a beautiful and sharply experimental novel, almost dissonant in the way its combination of poetry, prose and drama confounded reader expectations. Moran’s “Cane” had the beauty, but not so much Toomer’s radical opening of chosen form. It’s maybe a minor point and takes nothing away from the wonderful performance by Imani. Still, I’d love to see someone as talented as Moran try his hand at a 21st-century musical equivalent to the friendly bomb Toomer tossed toward 1923 literature.

Imani flutist Valerie Coleman closed the first half by introducing four selections she wrote from the longer Suite: Portraits of Josephine Baker. It was easy to hear Mariam Adam’s clarinet references to Sidney Bechet, plus the rhythms of the Charleston of Baker’s youth. You could get lost in the sections evoking Baker’s later idealism and passion for social justice.

Intermission brought a smooth shift into arrangements of Claude Debussy (Imani captured the airy, ambient Prelude Bruyères perfectly), Igor Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla. Oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz introduced Jakob Kowalewski’s adaptation of The Rite of Spring by pointing out all of the wonderfully intricate wind parts Stravinsky wrote that are usually swamped in orchestral versions by the sound of “all those strings and brass.” That comment earned a raised eyebrow from the French horn player and knowing smiles from the woodwind fans. But the performance was a blast, with the horn and bassoon thumping out those famously dark rhythms.

A brief nod to Latin America, Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango, ended the show, but then Imani came back for an encore—“Umoja,” a joyous piece combining spirituals and 19th-century classical music, written by Coleman and performed standing up at the front of the stage. You can listen to it here and imagine how it sounded in a packed room at the end of a glorious concert.

It’s noteworthy that the opening and closing numbers, both written by Imani members, were among the highlights of the night. Woodwind fans, myself included, can be ever grateful that a group like Imani Winds is writing and commissioning new works, as well as organizing its own annual chamber music festival for wind instrument students, performers and composers. Let’s hope they return.