Imani Winds: Revolution to Evolution - 27 East

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Imani Winds: Revolution to Evolution

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Imani Winds will perform on Shelter Island on April 6. SHERVIN LAINEZ

Imani Winds will perform on Shelter Island on April 6. SHERVIN LAINEZ

French horn player Kevin Newton. SHERVIN LAINEZ

French horn player Kevin Newton. SHERVIN LAINEZ

Clarinet player Mark Dover. SHERVIN LAINEZ

Clarinet player Mark Dover. SHERVIN LAINEZ

Bassoonist Monica Ellis. SHERVIN LAINEZ

Bassoonist Monica Ellis. SHERVIN LAINEZ

Oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz. SHERVIN LAINEZ

Oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz. SHERVIN LAINEZ

Flute player Brandon Patrick George. SHERVIN LAINEZ

Flute player Brandon Patrick George. SHERVIN LAINEZ

Dan Ouellette on Apr 3, 2024

Challenging the mainstream conception of classical music has not been an easy task. But doing so often opens up new audiences seeking sonic variety in the classical sphere.

The most significant change took place in the early 1970s, when the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet became the pioneers of twisting their string-fueled music, breaking down genre strictures and opening up new music to appeal to the modern listener.

It also opened the door for artists and composers to creatively break down the classical barrier. A prominent example of this is the dynamic and innovative wind quintet ensemble Imani Winds.

“We came at the right time,” says original member Toyin Spellman-Diaz, who plays the oboe. “Kronos was king and people were hungry for new sounds in the classical milieu. We were a part of the revolution.”

After having grabbed the 2024 Classical Compendium Grammy Award for its classical/jazz album “Passion for Bach and Coltrane” composed and arranged by Jeffrey Scott, Imani Winds wraps up its 28th season as a new classical forerunner on Saturday, April 6, at 6 p.m. at the Shelter Island Friends of Music concert at the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church. The event, “Black and Brown II: A Celebration of Composers of Color,” is free, with donations highly appreciated.

The concert features six dynamic works, including Carlos Simon’s “Giants” that celebrates three African Americans (Bessie Smith, Cornel West, Herbie Hancock) who have inspired him, and flutist/composer Valerie Coleman’s three-section “Rubispheres No. 1.”

Spellman-Diaz (who has a sub for the show because of a personal leave) notes that it was Coleman who came up with the idea of putting together a wind quintet comprising People of Color.

“Valerie asked around for good players to audition,” she says. “We were all based in New York City, so Valerie brought us together with the idea that we would stay together to bring new wind ensemble sounds to chamber music. I had no idea that it would go on for so long and that we would end up being in this juggernaut of chamber changes.”

That was in 1997, and today, Spellman-Diaz is one of the two original members of in Imani Winds.

“So often in the chamber world, if members leave, the group ends,” she says. “But we’ve stayed together as Imani Winds because we have a strong mission of bringing new sounds to chamber music and educating the next generations of chamber musicians and empowering them. We’re committed to championing composers from the non-European side of contemporary music.”

French horn player Kevin Newton joined in 2021 as the newest member of the ensemble.

“Imani Winds saved my life,” he says. “After studying classical music as an undergrad, I was ready to quit. But I auditioned with Imani Winds, and it invigorated me. The music spoke to me, and I became a part of a community whose roots are deep. It’s always the sound of Blackness that embraces the music of different cultures. It’s been a powerful experience that moves me. I’m lucky to be a part of the original legacy of Imani Winds. It’s meaningful work and very fun.”

Named for the Swahili word for faith and unity, Imani has grown to become a major player. It has formed the 501c3 Imani Winds Foundation that supports education and funds commissioning projects. It has started its own Imani Winds Media record label that tracks the ensemble and other groups. And for the last 12 years, it has presented in New York the annual Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival that trains young players and composers in the art of collaborative music making. This year the festival with guests and master classes takes place July 25 to August 4 at The Juilliard School. Imani Winds has trained over 500 students in composition and offered intensive seminars on entrepreneurship and social activism. The festival has also led to invites from music institutions and schools across the country to be educational artists in residence.

Imani Winds has come a long way from its early years. After performing periodically, in the late 1990s and early aughts, it was enlisted by adventurist jazz saxophonist Steve Coleman with his improvisation-steeped Five Elements band.

“We were basically the classical backup band for his ensemble,” says Spellman-Diaz. “But that did give us exposure around the world. We began to build our name.”

The band took a chance and auditioned for the first educational residency program at New York’s Concert Artist Guild, a classical music organization that helps and supports artists. Richard Weinert, the guild’s president from 2000 to 2018 and today, a board member and treasurer of Shelter Island Friends of Music, says Imani Winds amazed him.

“They had a vision that merited our full support,” the New York/Shelter Island resident says. “They were a first-class wind quintet embracing their color, and they were expanding the repertoire for wind quintets by working with genres beyond classical.”

This was a distinctive and unique ensemble to develop from what Weinert calls “their embryotic stage.” The group was playing at school outreaches and assemblies at the time. “But we set out to make them a career — out of the schools into the concert halls where there weren’t a lot of Black artists,” he says. “We invested in their careers, and they were successful under our tutelage.”

Spellman-Diaz says, “Richard has been an advisor and friend. He serves on our foundation board. He’s been a godsend to us over the decades.”

Another guide was jazz artist Wayne Shorter, who took Imani Winds under his wing and gave the ensemble great visibility in the jazz world. They appear on his 2013 “Without a Net” live album, and toured the globe with him.

“This was an incredible opportunity for us,” says Spellman-Diaz. “There’s no one better to work with. He was so encouraging and supportive. Even though he was incredibly famous, he always made sure the performance went as smooth and as easy as possible to make good and beautiful music. We also learned how he ran his quartet. It was always a collaborative effort. We’ll take his egalitarian music making with us forever.”

From revolution to evolution is constantly in motion with Imani Winds.

Spellman-Diaz ends the conversation by giving a preview of the final two tunes of the show. Visionary composer/steel pan virtuoso Andy Akiho’s buoyant, bright, percussion-charged “Becloud, Beloved, Belonging” is a compelling piece that was commissioned by Imani Winds with support from its foundation and the Concert Artists Guild Richard Weinert Award.

“It’s a good example of a piece that tells a story,” says Spellman-Diaz. “It was written as a protest against the immigrant detention center in Brooklyn turning off the heat in January 2019, which resulted in the people inside banging rhythmically on the windows and walls for attention. We planned on performing Andy’s piece outside the detention center, but that proved to have logistical problems. So we premiered it at Rikers Island jail in empathy for those incarcerated.”

The finale of the evening is the Billy Taylor tune “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” that he instrumentally recorded in 1963 and debuted in Carnegie Hall in 1967. Nina Simone almost immediately sang the lyrics by Dick Dallas at her concerts and recorded it on her 1967 album “Silk & Soul.” It was such a strong statement that it became the anthem for the Civil Rights movement.

“Our clarinetist, Mark Dover, arranged the song based on the Nina version,” says Spellman-Diaz. “So we do it the Imani Winds way. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but prepare for bells and whistles that will be super fun.”

Imani Winds performs “Black and Brown II: A Celebration of Composers of Color” on Saturday, April 6, at 6 p.m. in a Shelter Island Friends of Music concert at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, 32 North Ferry Road. The concert is free, but donations are welcome. A reception with the musicians follows the concert. For details, visit shelterislandfriendsofmusic.org.

Dan Ouellette is the Shelter Island author of the book “The Landfill Chronicles: Unearthing Legends of Modern Music” (Cymbal Press), available this week at Amazon. His DownBeat cover feature on singer Lizz Wright appears in the May issue of the magazine that will be available soon in April.

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