Chamber wind ensemble Imani Winds: (from left) Mariam Adam, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Jeff Scott, Valerie Coleman and (front) Monica Ellis. Valerie Coleman says the ensemble’s new album, Terra Incognita, will ‘change the way people look at chamber music within an album. You really have to come at it through the perspective of Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, or any of Wayne Shorter’s albums.’

‘It’s Something Else—It Really Is’
Imani Winds Has High Hopes For New Album, Terra Incognita, Due August 24
An exclusive interview with Valerie Coleman

By David McGee

Since debuting on disc in 2002 with Umoja and introducing compositions by Cuban multi-instrumentalist Paquita D’Rivera and Argentine tango and bandoneón to the classical world, the New York-based chamber wind ensemble Imani Winds has been predictable only for being unpredictable, and that’s not going to change come August 24 when the group releases its sixth album, Terra Incognita.

Over the course of its previous studio albums, the quintet (“imani” means faith in the Swahili language), founded in 1997 and comprised of musicians of both African American and Latin American ancestry, has dazzled with the energy and intelligence of original and multiculturally influenced compositions introduced by flutist and founder Valerie Coleman and those of Jeff Scott, whose soothing, introspective forays on french horn belie his formidable physical stature. Reaching beyond its own resources for material, Imani Winds has brought new spins to a variety of material from outside the usual classical repertoire, notably in its embrace of South American and Afro-Cuban music that is both ambitious in concept and daring in scope (consider the atmospheric eight-part “Aires Tropicales” by Paquito D’Rivera on the Grammy nominated Classical Underground in 2005, which also contained Astor Piazzola ‘s “Uber Tango,” a traditional spiritual [“Steal Away,” arranged by Ms. Coleman], Lalo Schifrin’s buoyant “La Nouvelle Orleans,” Ms. Coleman’s ethereal “Concerto for Wind Quintet” and Mr. Scott’s “Homage to Duke,” inspired by the music of Duke Ellington). That’s a lot of musical turf covered in one record, but all of the Imani Winds long players boast similar exhilarating journeys, whether those be into gypsy jazz (Josephine Baker: A Life of Le Jazz Hot, 2007, which also begat a multimedia show hosted by Imani Winds) or Christmas music then and now (This Christmas, 2008).

Terra Incognita continues the pattern—or rather, expands it. The album contains only three extended compositions, all commissioned by the group for this project, by Jason Moran (familiar to Imani Winds fans from his work on This Christmas), Paquito D’Rivera and Wayne Shorter (whose composition—the first piece the jazz titan has ever written for anyone other than his own group—is the title track).

In an exclusive interview with, Ms. Coleman admitted that limiting the selections to only three compositions goes against the grain of the Imani Winds philosophy—“We always like to get a smorgasbord of things going on, just a little morsel of this and that, all different sounds”—but emphasized how the depth of each selection fills the bill in terms of challenging musicians and audience alike.

“The three pieces are enough; they really are,” she said. “Each is just so substantial and gives you so much food for thought. Basically it’s three main courses. So you don’t want to put little appetizers and deserts in there—it diminishes the main course.

“I can describe it verbally as much as possible, but you just have to hear it to actually know what I’m talking about.”

Composer by composer, Ms. Coleman outlined what to expect from the new Imani Winds long player:

On Paquito D’Rivera, “Kites”: “The piece is amazing. It is the type of work that makes you want to groove but at the same time makes you want to think. Because there’s so much that’s going on. You’ll have to listen to it several times to hear all the genius that Paquito has put into it. The piece is called ‘Kites,’ and the first movement is ‘Kites Over Havana,’ which was written in 2006 and premiered at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center; the second movement is called ‘Wind Chimes.’ It’s a fast-slow type of thing—first movement’s fast, second movement’s slow, then it comes back to fast. Kind of like an ABA theme, split between two movements.

“Paquito basically created a work that not only tied into the groove factor that he is known for, the Afro-Cuban sound that he creates in such a unique way; but it also ties back to his social roots in Cuba. When living in Cuba he felt as if he were tethered down, but when he moved to the U.S. he felt free. So this piece is kind of like a kite—a kit soars up in the air, but it’s always tethered to the ground. But once you get that feeling that you’re soaring through the air you don’t want to come back down to the ground, at all. You don’t want to be pulled back, restrained or restricted. So he creates this concept within the Afro-Cuban sound. There’s a lot of piccolo in there (laughs), you know; that’s why I really love the piece—I’m so partial to it because of the piccolo factor.  But he wrote it for us, the wind quintet, himself and a pianist. And he has little portions of improvisation going on in there as well. So it’s a sultry piece at times; it grooves in other places; it is profound. It has speaking in it. Okay, now I might be saying too much about it! But overall, I have to tell you, everybody in the group is saying, ‘Okay, this is a Grammy nominated album.’ I believe that strongly, and the reason why is each piece is so unique and so strong in its own way. I would not be surprised if all three of them as composers get nominated for their work on the compositional level.”

On Jason Moran: “Jason’s piece is built on his ancestry. He had a great-great-grandaunt that was a slave. Being the concubine of the slave master, she was later freed, but her children still remained in captivity. So this amazing woman got a land grant from the Spanish government to basically purchase land. She tilled the soil, she cultivated it, and one by one she bought all of her children back. Think about this: an ex-slave, she didn’t know how to read or write, but somehow she managed to get a land grant from the Spanish government in Louisiana. It’s an incredible story. But the story is not completely about her; it’s about Jason’s discovery, of where he came from, his soul searching, all the way up to the last movement where it’s now ‘Nagadish to New York,’ that’s the name of the last movement, which means that his family was on the plantation in Natchitoches, his ancestors, but now he’s brought them up to New York. The piece is very profound; it’s gorgeous. Once again it’s so unique.

“Jason came in writing this piece not knowing how to write for wind quintet, but we just worked with him, and he experimented with us, all the different sounds. And he came up with his own sound, and it’s a god thing, because normally composers do study scores—and Jason did as well—but sometimes the trap in writing for something you haven’t written for before is that you do so much research, but not put your own unique ideas into it. There are a lot of people who end up writing quintets that sound like works that have already been written. So Jason, thank God, he did not do that. He stuck to his own voice, and it’s an amazing, gorgeous piece.” (Jason Moran photo by Jos L. Knaepen)

On Wayne Shorter, “Terra Incognita”: “His concept is foreign lands, unknown lands, foreign waters, uncharted territories. Wayne is such an explorer (laughs), not just on a musical front, but on a spiritual front, and in his imagination as well. He loves to read sci-fi books, and I think that his music shows a little bit of that. There’s a lot of heroicism in Wayne’s sound, in the spiritual elevation of his music. Oh, gosh—I can’t even describe the piece. It’s about fifteen, twenty minutes long, and you never know what’s going to happen next. It has so many different twists and turns, goes through so many harmonic progressions that you would not expect. And then it ends with this melody that he’s been playing all along in the piece, at different points with different backgrounds and different tempi and whatnot, but then he just goes back to the root of it at the end. It’s a really spiritual moment. Wayne is who he is because he can tap into the spirit. He can touch the hand of God, so to speak, and you hear it, you feel it, it resounds right to the tip of your toes. If you feel the earth rumble when you hear Wayne play, that’s your spirit moving because he’s moving it.

“Traveling through space is a big interest of his. I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear in a couple of years from now that he’s decided to get on the Shuttle. Just go above the Earth to see what it looks like from space. He’s an incredible person. He transformed the way we looked at music. When you’re on stage with him, he is elevated to a point where you’re soaring just by witnessing what he’s doing. You want to bring that back to your own performances. You want to tap into that sense of greater-than-you.

“’Terra Incognita’ is the first piece Wayne has ever written outside of his group. Think about it—everything Wayne has written he has played, or he and his band have played. When he decided to write for us he said, ‘Now is the time to bring what I do, push it to an external sense. These cats, they get it so I’m going to try to write something of that nature.’ We’re so flattered that he think we can ‘get it.’ All I know is there have been times when we’re on stage and I’m just brought to tears, in awe of what he does. That’s all I know.” (Wayne Shorter photo by Jos L. Knaepen)

Excerpts from Imani Winds and the Miami String Quartet performing Roberto Sierra’s ‘Concierto de Camara.’ Composer Roberto Sierra introduces the musicians.

As it has since day one, Imani Winds juggles multiple projects at once. An ongoing endeavor is the Legacy Commissioning Project, which started out—and remains—a program to commission, premiere and tour new works for woodwind quintet written by established and emerging composers from varied musical backgrounds. Jason Moran is part of the Project, composing a work titled Cane, and for 2010-2011 new works by Danilo Perez and Simon Shaheen are in the works. The point, ultimately, is to expand the repertoire, a commitment Imani Winds has honored by interpreting Mendelssohn and Ravel alongside Astor Piazzolla and Wayne Shorter, for example. What began as a celebration to mark the grou's 10th anniversary has now, Coleman says, “morphed into something else,” with no end in sight.

“Now we’re talking about working with Phillip Glass; we plan to commission him. And there’s other composers coming up down the line. We said we’re going to stop in 2011; then we said we’re going to stop in 2012. But then we realized it’s so successful, and each composer brings something so unique, that we just need to keep it going. So it started in 2007? So 2007 into infinity, as long as Imani Winds stays together, which I hope will be a very, very long time.”

There’s more: this year—next month, in fact—marks the starts of the first session of the Imani Winds Chamber Music Institute, an intensive eight-day program (July 31-August 7) centered on wind chamber music performance, held at The Juilliard School at Lincoln Center, with participants housed at Juilliard’s Meredith Wilson Residence Hall. In a variety of settings (clinics, master classes, informal readings), group members and guest artists will work with 25 students who have been selected by audition; the program even offers a “Yoga for Musicians” class to help take off the edge.

Always eager to reach out to young audiences, Imani Winds is shown here talking to and performing for students at the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London, CT. Says Valerie Coleman: ‘We’ve learned from the school of hard knocks, over a decade of being together.’

The Chamber Music Institute is part of the larger mission Ms. Coleman and her Imani Winds colleagues—in addition to Mr. Scott the group includes Toyin Spellman-Diaz (oboe), Mariam Adam (clarinet) and Monica Ellis (bassoon)—to give back to other aspiring musicians the knowledge they’ve gleaned from years on the road and in studios. “The bottom line of the Institute is that we’ve been traveling across the country for so many years doing different master classes, and the Institute gives us a chance to impart the knowledge that we’ve learned from the school of hard knocks, over a decade of being together.”

A corollary benefit for students attending the Institute is the real world advice on making a living playing in a wind ensemble. String quartets, Ms. Coleman notes, are recognized by the general public as the standard for chamber groups. She wants young musicians to know the wind quintet is a viable option.

“For wind quintet, we’re constantly redefining that for people and letting people know that it is possible (a) to make a living off wind quintet, and (b) that there are pieces out there that are standard, that are master pieces. Also, when you go to conservatories, there are students that don’t always take wind quintet seriously when they’re put in a group. Maybe they’ll rehearse one hour a week, or two hours a week, and maybe another hour of coaching in a week, and that’s it. This is a chance for students to really immerse themselves in wind quintet playing and repertoire, getting coaching every day, getting a chance to rehearse every day, learning about how you can actually make a living as a chamber musician. Then on top of that learning more about solo repertoire and learning how to collaborate, learning how to write grants—there’s so many different levels to it as there are so many levels to running a business known as Imani Winds. So that’s basically the gist of it. We’re so excited about it, and the turnout has been phenomenal so far.”

The Institute will complete its first session right on time for the members of Imani Winds to turn their attention fully to promoting Terra Incognita. Suffice it to say Ms. Coleman can’t wait for that day. Her hopes are high—she believes Terra Incognita will “change the way people look at chamber music within an album. You really have to come at it through the perspective of Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, or any of Wayne’s albums. There’s a seamlessness to this album, and Wayne’s piece in particular is the type of work that you can just listen to over and over again and always find something new in it.

“I can’t say enough how special this album is to us,” she adds emphatically. “It’s something else—it really is.”

For more information on the Imani Winds Chamber Music Institute and other Imani Winds news, check the group’s website at

If you’re new to Imani Winds’ music, a good place to start learning about it is on the Grammy nominated 2005 album, Classical Underground with its mix of original compositions and intriguing cross-cultural explorations of works by Paquito D’Rivera and Lalo Schifrin. Classical Underground is available at

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