Lenox Avenue is a theater, with the crowds hoping to catch a glimpse of President Obama in Harlem.
Me, I’m heading out to watch a rehearsal of the Imani Winds, five African-American virtuosos who play flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn and bassoon together around the world and on New York City’s greatest stages: the Apollo Theater, Alice Tully and Carnegie Hall.
When I arrive, they’re in full swing. Nearby on a couch, a little boy sits, listening. His mother, Tiffany Ellis Butts (sister to bassoonist Monica Ellis), scoops him up in her arms as they sway to the music: a woodwind suite lush with Panamanian themes, pierced with upshots of jazz. Pianist Danilo Perez wrote “Travesias Panamanias” expressly for the Imani Winds, as part of their Legacy Commissioning Project.
I try to imagine growing up with this difficult, sonorous, proud music like the boy–who, I learn, is Calvin, a grandson of the Rev. Calvin O. Butts of Abyssinian Baptist. To this child, and to his brother Reed Harris, “Classical music is Black music,” Ellis says during a pause. “We are in all dimensions of music.”
Let me say, Ellis is an entire situation on bassoon. The pedigree includes being the daughter of jazz saxophonist Clarence Oden and getting trained at Oberlin College and the Juilliard School. She is an imposing beauty with swagger on par with any R&B diva.
“We all come to the table with a soloist’s instincts,” says Ellis. “When everybody has a powerful voice, where is the homogeneity?”
“Attack the accents,” somebody says. And they do.
“Cultivating joy in playing together and breaking the timidity were the issues early on. But at this level, the work is to let go of the overindulgence,” says flutist and composer Valerie Coleman, the group’s founder. “Less is more.”
Coleman, with degrees from Boston U. and Mannes College of Music, advises the National Flute Association. She spins ribbons of sound rapturously atop the ensemble.
“To play simply is really hard,” says Toyin Spellman-Diaz, the oboist. “Our goal is to align our sense of internal rhythm–starting, stopping, tapering, breathing together.”
Spellman-Diaz has played under the baton of maestros Masur, Barenboim, Boulez, Aschenbach and Rostropovitch. At Manhattan School of Music, where we first met, she joined Jason Moran on his undergraduate jazz piano recital. A decade later, she commissioned his composition, “Cane.”
Imani Winds has forged its identity by playing music they love regardless of category, with the best practitioners of the craft. Jazz legend Wayne Shorter “opened up the floodgates of spirituality and truth for us,” Ellis professed. Shorter wrote “Terra Incognita” for Imani Winds, his first work for any ensemble other than his own.
Next resident master is Paquito D’Rivera, the indomitable reedist and nine-time Grammy winner. He joins the Imani Winds’ nine-day chamber music festival July 26 through August 6 at Juilliard.
Mariam Adam on clarinet bridges classical and jazz performance in ensemble and as a soloist. “Let me pick my poison,” she said, reaching for her reed case. The other players laugh. Her facility and fortitude drive the rhythms like no other.
Jeff Scott, on French horn and a resident composer, is ubiquitous on his instrument, whether it’s in orchestras for “The Lion King,” Alvin Ailey, Dance Theater of Harlem and Jazz at Lincoln Center, on records alongside Terrance Blanchard, Tan Dun and Jimmy Heath or on tour with Barbara Streisand.
Scott was in the pit for one of the greatest shows of all time: Luther Vandross at Madison Square Garden. He sings Ohio Players’ “She’s a Bad Mama Jama” as he packs away his horn.
The most efficient, cooperative, relaxed rehearsal I’ve ever witnessed is over. “We choose our music a year in advance,” explains Spellman-Diaz. “By rehearsal time we have our own parts learned and ready to play. Rehearsal is for making music with the group.”
On May 3, Imani Winds performs “The Rite of Spring” at the Rose Studio at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to benefit the Chamber Music Festival Scholarship Fund. Come mingle with the players, then enjoy a wine tasting and decadent desserts. Proceeds will benefit their scholarship fund. For tickets, visit ImaniWindsFestival.com.
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