A Full of Colours and Exciting Evening With Imani Winds

by Frédéric Cardin

Imani Winds is a wind quintet from the United States that’s a blessing to hear. Made up of black musicians (except for the clarinettist), they aim to bring music up to date for this type of ensemble by playing, along with great staples of the repertoire, new arrangements (their most recent album is entitled A Passion for Bach and Coltrane, which gives you an idea!), works by black composers or by commissioning new works, often inspired by African-American and Latino music. The group, which has won three Grammy awards, gave a concert last night at Salle Bourgie in Montreal. Only their second in 27 years of existence, which is a great shame for us. An all Black and Latino programme was offered to the audience, who packed the Bourgie Hall reasonably well.

There’s plenty to admire about the musicians on stage: Brandon Patrick George, flute, Mekhi Gladden, oboe (replacing Toyin Spellman-Diaz), Mark Dover, clarinet, Kevin Newton, horn and Monica Ellis, bassoon. Firstly, they are very, very good, each of them clearly a top-class soloist. The ensemble playing is impressive in its effortless virtuosity, surgical articulation and fusional coherence. Secondly, and most importantly, for the past 27 years, they have been investing (though not exclusively) in a repertoire space that remains marginal, but fortunately is rapidly expanding, that of music written by artists from racialized and/or minority communities in classical music. Bravo!

All but one of the pieces on the bill were strongly coloured by jazz, blues or Latin music. Accented syncopations, fluid, slightly feline swaying and chromatic colours revolving around ‘blue’ harmonies, this was a catchy universe, but not a racy one. No, because the scores on offer (by Damien Geter, Carlos Simon, Paquito D’Rivera, Valerie Coleman, Andy Akiho and Billy Taylor, the latter in an arrangement) are refined, twirling and full of invigorating effects, often entertaining, sometimes surprising. But what satisfies any passionate and invested music lover in this kind of programme is the extra soul added to the works by their extra-musical references. It’s racial profiling in Damien Geter’s I Said What I Said (the main theme depends on the typically Black locutionary rhythm of the title phrase), the celebration of great black personalities in Carlos Simon’s Giants (Bessie Smith, Cornel West, Herbie Hancock), of New York neighbourhoods in Valerie Coleman’s Rubispheres no 1, of freedom in Billy Taylor’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free or the denunciation of the imprisonment of immigrants in Andy Akiho’s BeLoud, BeLoved, BeLonging.


This last piece is, however, the stylistic exception of the lot, as it is a post-minimalist flight in three movements, nervous and devilishly exciting, less obviously connected than the others to Afro-American or Latin heritage. Ironically, the piece by Paquito D’Rivera, Aires tropicales, by far the best-known artist on the programme, is the most “facile”. Not bad, no. It gives the instrumentalists a good workout and is certainly an excellent musical challenge for any professional ensemble. But the juxtaposition of the writing and the underlying theme is more superficial than its competitors

The evening, much appreciated by the audience, ended with an arrangement of Billy Taylor’s famous song I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, dedicated by Nina Simone. Real jazz, but adapted in anything but a linear fashion. Clarinettist Mark Dover did a fabulous job, turning it into a feverish Theme and Variations bursting with expressive dynamite. 

The applause was long and sustained. Everyone clearly wanted to see them again as soon as possible.

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