Imani Winds is the name of the quintet consisting of Valerie Coleman (flute), Toyin Spellman-Diaz (oboe and English horn), Mariam Adam (clarinet), Monica Ellis (bassoon), and Jeff Scott (horn). I first became aware of them in August of 2010, when Entertainment One released their Terra Incognita recording. This album included compositions by Wayne Shorter, Paquito D’Rivera, and Jason Moran; but, in spite of the jazz backgrounds of these composers, there was a clear sense that this was composed music, providing these three jazzmen with opportunities to explore a new approach to expression. My first experience with Imani Winds in concert came in June of 2014, when they visited the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco and performed their own arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “The Rite of Spring.” While there were an ample number of dog-walking-on-hind-legs moments in this arrangement, there were several others that made a deep impression by capturing not only the spirit of the music but also a clear account of the devices Stravinsky had used to evoke that spirit.
At the beginning of this month Entertainment One released Imani Winds’ latest album, Startin’ Sumthin’, an eclectic combination of original compositions and arrangements. The title track is an original composition by Scott, and two other tracks are by Coleman, “Red Clay & Mississippi Delta” and “Tzigane.” The opening track is an arrangement by Scott of Astor Piazzolla’s “Contrabajissimo,” which was originally scored for double bass, bandoneon, violin, piano, and guitar. According to its Web page on the Accordionist.Net Web site, this piece was written for Hector Console, described as “the number one tango bassist in the world.” It begins with an elaborate cadenza, which Scott replaced with a cadenza more suitable for bassoon. Finally, there is an arrangement by Adam Lesnick of Gene Kavadlo’s settings of two klezmer dances.
While the track listing promises an intriguing assortment of diverse approaches to making music, the results never quite live up to that promise. There is no questioning the technical capability of each of the players, nor is there ever a problem with how they engage among each other as a group. However, there are shortcomings in expressiveness; and, as a result, there tends to be an overall blandness across the entire recording. Anyone familiar with Piazzolla will recognize this from the opening track. He was clearly a highly imaginative composer; and, when he wrote for any of his combos, he always had a solid sense of which players were capable of displaying what levels of virtuosity. However, from a rhetorical point of view, there was almost always an undertone of outrageousness in the music he made; and the real challenge to arranging his music is to maintain that undertone. Leonid Desyatnikov was particularly good at this when he arranged Piazzolla for Gidon Kremer; but, in spite of the originality in the bassoon cadenza, Scott’s approach was too much “by the book.” So it goes throughout the recording, even to the point that it is hard to distinguish Kavadlo’s Yiddishkeit from the Gypsy spirit in “Tzigane.”
Taken as a whole, Startin’ Sumthin’ is definitely an affable album; but that affability may have interfered with any attempts to tease out the distinguishing expressive core of each of the selections.