Imani Winds: Terra Incognita

Imani Winds: Terra Incognita

Hearing the five members of Imani Winds talk about their history together and what keeps them going is like walking in on a great party. Read the interview…

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

July 15, 2010—10 a.m.

Valerie Coleman, flute
Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboe
Mariam Adam, clarinet
Jeff Scott, French horn
Monica Ellis, bassoon

Transcribed by Julia Lu
Condensed and edited by Frank J. Oteri, John Lydon, and Alexandra Gardner
Filmed and recorded by Molly Sheridan and Alexandra Gardner
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Traditionally, new music has always thrived in chamber music settings more than it has within larger, more institutional environments like orchestras and opera companies where it can be too much of a wild card—maintaining payroll for so many people sometimes tempers a desire to take risks. In order to set themselves apart, chamber groups by definition must do things that others don’t if they want to succeed in the long term. Of course, there are many classical piano trios and string quartets that survive on a steady diet of the tried and true—after all, there’s a lot of great music for those combinations that’s still in demand by presenters and audiences all over the world. The wind quintet, however, has a somewhat different story. For starters, the heterodox combination of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and French horn (which isn’t even a woodwind!) makes for a pretty strange blend of sonorities. And while it has attracted a wide range of composers for nearly two centuries (e.g. Anton Reicha composed 24 wind quintets and Schoenberg’s first large-scale twelve-tone composition was scored for this ensemble), the repertoire has never had the same cachet among chamber music aficionados.

That precarious legacy has not deterred legions of fabulous groups from pursuing making music within this unique timbral configuration. Most of them do so by reviving the lesser-known gems of the wind quintet canon, performing transcriptions of works originally composed for other instruments, and commissioning new work. Arguably none has plunged into this endeavor with greater élan than the Imani Winds. What began as a wild and somewhat starry-eyed dream to form a new kind of ensemble that would reflect its members’ shared heritage as well as reshape people’s perceptions of what a wind quintet could be is now entering its 14th season with all five of its original members.

Imani Winds has made this unlikely amalgam work through a combination of great performance chops, charismatic stage presence, fascinating projects, and a selection of repertoire that both calls attention to each of their personal strengths and pushes them to other places. Their stage performances and recordings have found them doing everything from cabaret at the Apollo Theatre in honor of Josephine Baker to tackling the music of Elliott Carter and Karel Husa. On the day we visited with them they were preparing for a session exploring quarter-tones and maqam with Palestinian oud virtuoso Simon Shaheen, and on their latest album, Terra Incognita, released this month by E1 Entertainment, they are performing brand new compositions created especially for them by jazz composers Wayne Shorter, Paquito D’Rivera, and Jason Moran.

To hear the five members of Imani Winds talk about their history together and what keeps them going is like walking in on a great party. It’s perhaps the only thing as joyous as hearing them make music.



FRANK J. OTERI: I’ve been following what you’ve been doing since almost the beginning. I think we first met at one of the Chamber Music America conferences. It was before you had management and before you had released a CD, so it was pretty close to the beginning. But I never knew the exact beginning of Imani Winds. How did you all meet each other? Whose idea was it originally, and how did it start?

Valerie, Mariam, Monica, Toyin, and Jeff

VALERIE COLEMAN: I basically called up everybody. I was a student over at Mannes College of Music. The three ladies were at Manhattan School, and Jeff here just graduated from Manhattan School and he was doing the Lion King. Somehow or another each person was referred to me and I guess New York is a small place when it comes to freelancers and what not. So I called them up and said, “Hey what do you guys want to do for the rest of your life?” The whole idea was bringing together five people of color, and using our backgrounds as a means of interpreting music of any kind of genre: from Mozart to contemporary music. We felt that it would be a great experiment, so to speak. And so we rehearsed, and I was all energetic. I’m like, this is great. They’re like, this girl is so a nutcase.

JEFF SCOTT: I don’t know if I shared this with you guys. I was about six or seven months into it and you put together this graph of how much money we could make if we did this many gigs. This was your hope and your dream, and I remember being in the car with my good friend Greg, and we’re driving along, and he’s like, “How’s this wind quintet working out?” I’m like, “Well, I don’t know. This crazy flute player actually thinks we’re going to make a living out of this.” He’s like “Really?” I was like, “Yeah, man. I don’t know how long I’m going to be in this group.”

[group laughter]

FJO: Where did the name Imani come from?

VC: The name was before the group. I think it was what gave me the inspiration or the courage to call people and act upon a dream.

TOYIN SPELLMAN-DIAZ: What a crazy thing that you were a student, going to music history class, music theory class, and you’re thinking, I’m going to start this wind quintet. It’s kind of rare when you’re in school to play with people from other schools.

VC: It’s not as crazy as we all think because we always say in classical music that a person of color may be the only chocolate chip in the cookie. It’s up to you if you want to keep doing that. Going to different schools and looking at all the freelancers in town was a necessity.

FJO: It seems like you’re all good friends now. But the music happened first.

MARIAM ADAM: I think that is the one thing that people are shocked at that we have this camaraderie that is not found a lot in chamber music groups. But I will say it’s something that we worked on. It’s something that grew because we didn’t know each other even though we maybe had common backgrounds. Actually, we had very starkly different backgrounds. But the respect level and the friendship level has grown over the years, and therefore, the music has also grown, and our ideas have grown together. You don’t have these elements in a lot of groups. Some people just focus on the music, or just focus on their career goals; they don’t focus on the unity of the group and the impact that an organization like this can have. And I think that’s something that comes across in our teaching, and in the music, on stage, and that helps develop audiences.

FJO: The wind quintet is sort of an odd combination, and it has a weird history. It goes back quite a long time, but it doesn’t have the repertoire that, say, the string quartet or the piano trio does. So why did you want to form, specifically, a wind quintet?

VC: I think it was because when I was growing up I always wanted to be in a wind quintet. Even as a teen, I’d seen wind quintets around me, just other students, and I always wanted that. So there was that deep-rooted seed that was planted early on. Then when I went to the Aspen Music Festival, I finally got to be in a wind quintet and I was just so thrilled. It was great having five people working together. It was chamber music at a different level to me. Before I was doing duets and trios, but now, it was just like a whole family.

MA: It’s kind of our only genre for wind instruments. String quartets have string trio, or piano trios, they have the string quintet even. Wind players don’t really have a standard. There’s a brass quintet. And that really is all we have. And so even if it’s not a standard configuration in most peoples’ minds, it is. And there is repertoire out there. And I think the biggest things for us have been: deciphering to the world and our audiences that it’s an established instrumentation; that there is a lot of repertoire out there and it’s growing (it’s not all great); to encourage people that it can be great; and that there can be this modern take on the sound that a wind quintet can produce. So now it’s been a great pleasure in all our new endeavors to discover the new sounds and styles that these five different instruments can make.

FJO: That’s the key, that it’s five different instruments. A string quartet is all about the blending; it’s the same family, and there’s a continuum and range hierarchy. But in a wind quintet the sounds are produced in different ways. And they’re not even all woodwinds. There’s a brass instrument in there. What’s cool about the wind quintet as an ensemble is that everyone is instantly equal, and it’s instantly counterpoint driven because you have these different timbres. So Valerie, part of this fascination with this idea of playing in a wind quintet must come from your being a composer. Before you formed Imani wind quintet, you went to B.U. and have a degree in composition—a double degree in flute and composition—so you were thinking like a composer. The very idea of wanting to put together such a group, wanting to make a statement, but working with a group of color and it being a wind quintet, is compositional. And I know you wrote this piece Umoja really early on.

Umoja, Imani Winds’ self-produced debut recording

VC: Umoja came first. You said something very interesting that the concept of getting this group together is very composer-driven. I wasn’t even thinking as a composer at the time, and that’s always been the battle in my brain. One side wants to be a flutist; the other side wants to be a composer. And it was purely the flute side that was going into that mode of wind quintet. And the composer side came out later on when we just needed more repertoire to fit a purpose. As a matter of fact, when I graduated from B.U., I didn’t even want to consider myself as a composer because—no offense to anybody anywhere at B.U.—I was so disenchanted with what I had seen in terms of composers. It was so smarty-pants. And you know, I came from the ‘hood. I came from Louisville, Kentucky, and that’s just so anti-me. You know, I do have my little Star Trek spells, granted.

[group laughter]

VC: But at the same time, I would sit in composition class and all of a sudden, somebody would break out NWA and then they would look at me and expect me to be the expert on rap music. I’m like, “Why are you looking at me expecting me to do this? I want to do Schenkerian analysis with you guys.” So there was always that fight about what a composer is, and what the stereotype is that I just was not attracted to at all. But when I came to New York, I realized that composers define themselves in a different way. There are so many of us here. So whereas B.U. was my first introduction to this concept of composer and put it in a box, New York opened it up.

FJO: But you said Umoja came before for Imani.

VC: Well, it was a choral piece. It was a women’s choir piece. I was in my first year at Mannes College of Music. I’m always dreaming, and so I was thinking, why not put together a black history concert. And there was a need for some music so I created Umoja. Then somewhere along the timeline when Imani Winds came together, we had to do a wedding. And the person who was the groom wanted some Africana type of music. So I thought about Umoja and thought it would transfer easily into wind quintet. And that’s what happened.

FJO: So once you formed the group. Now you had an all-black wind quintet, but there was no repertoire.

MONICA ELLIS: As you were saying, in comparison to the string quartet—they’ve got dozens and dozens of pieces, whereas we have a dozen. But within that, there are really good pieces. There is quality within a small quantity. We’re only half as old. If the string quartet is 350 years old, we’re like 175. The mid-1800s is what we’re talking about. So naturally we’re going to only have a certain amount. But it is indeed true that when it comes to repertoire, if you’re going to sustain yourself like we have, you absolutely have to have something else more than just the standard stuff that’s out there, because you’ll finish the repertoire in two or three concerts. And then, what do you do next? So, there are people in the group writing for us. And then finding other pieces that are already out there, because sometimes there are wonderful pieces. You just have to unearth them. They’re just not really known amongst the greater population. That’s part of the problem too.

TSD: But we have to feel some sort of connection to it ourselves going into the decision-making process. We do have to feel like it is something we enjoy playing, as well as think an audience would enjoy listening to it. When we choose repertoire, we really think about that throughout the whole time that we’re reading through new music or listening to new music. The whole time we’re thinking: Would I really want to work that hard? Is the work we’re going to put into it worth the output that you get at the end of it?

MA: But sometimes there is the cart before the horse. We will get a piece, because somebody says we really should: “You’re going to love this piece.” And it’ll take us a few performances—not just rehearsals, but performances—to really warm up to the piece. Sometimes it’s the audience response that then turns us around to really loving a piece. And then we’ll think: Really? We didn’t really know. It’s giving a piece a chance or certain repertoire a chance, because my other theory that I was just thinking of is that the wind quintet, around the world, has had many fires started. There have probably been Imani Winds-type groups around the world, because you find the repertoire: Brazilian pieces, a lot of eastern European composers, too. We find, we unearth these pieces that maybe are no longer in print, or that some other group finds us and says, “Have you heard this group or this piece? You should really check it out. It’s only published in Siberia.” Through MySpace and the modern technology of social networking you find pieces. I think we have just been lucky that our fire is going strong and that we’re able to keep this little train in motion.

VC: I think that what’s going on right now with the computer is because wind quintet groups are not competitive by nature. We’re trying to all survive, so now we’re depending on each other to put our brains together and share information. If some group has unearthed repertoire, they record it and then people like us who do research and go onto iTunes or or web sites that have wind quintet recordings, we find that and we track down either the composer or the wind quintet group that did it. And we say, “Hey, where can we find that piece?” And they tell us, and they in turn say to us, we really enjoy your Liber Tango arrangement. Can we get that? So it is truly a matter of survival.

FJO: It was interesting to hear you say that you would sometimes play pieces a few times before you started to like them. So you’ll actually play pieces you don’t like.

ME: I don’t think it’s that we don’t like them. We do sense some goodness in it in the reading process when we’re choosing programs and repertoire for our new season. We go through an often very laborious task of listening to music and playing through music, then we whittle it down. We get big old Post-Its on this very wall—those big humongous Post-Its, you know—and try to make lists and see which pieces are going to work. And we often come across pieces that feel good in that moment. And we say we are fortunate enough to have the type of touring schedule and the type of performance opportunities where we can plug something in and then give it a few shots, give it a few chances. Then if it seems as though it doesn’t work, we just say we’ll scratch it. But there’s always some part of it that makes us want to do it. We never play a piece that we really don’t want to play and think, “OK, let’s give it shot ’cause it might work.” We always have some kind of feeling that this is a good piece. But it’s usually after playing where we realize what just didn’t cut the mustard as much as we thought it would.

FJO: And all five of you have to agree?

TSD: Yes.

VC: Well no.

[group laughter]

JS: We’ve had occasions where four people will be pro one piece, and one person has to be convinced to try it.

ME: Jeff is often the one.

JS: Yeah, I’ll admit it.

MA: The programming that we do really also has a very pragmatic approach, too. Because we’re wind players, we have to think about our chops and how well we can sustain throughout one half, then the second half of a concert. And repertoire gets selected based upon that. So we have also this other portion to our programming has this non-glamorous—

VC: Practicality.

MA: —which is really important. But it’s also about the whole package deal. Because if you feel bad, or if you’re not energetic and you don’t love the piece—you don’t love the moment of this part of the concert, the audience isn’t going to love it. We are very conscious of this relationship with the audience. I think again that’s something groups don’t often think that much about. Or they don’t put it that high on their priority list. For us, it’s high because it’s a constant building relationship. We’re still plowing new paths. We still have to earn the trust of that seasoned chamber music subscriptions ticket buyer who really only likes string playing.

VC: But at the same time, we don’t pick music solely because of the audience.

JS: It’s kind of a good thing-bad thing: we don’t have Saint-Saëns, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Beethoven. They didn’t write for wind quintet. So when you send a program out to a presenter, they’re usually looking at a list of names they’ve never even heard of. It’s a bad thing because they’re usually worried about whether their audience is going to even relate to this. The good thing is we get to introduce people to new repertoire. And because, like Monica said, we take our time in picking repertoire, if we feel strongly about something, it’s turned out over the years that usually the audience appreciates the music that we bring to them, and therefore, the presenters like us. So it’s a good thing that, along with the new quintets that are out, that we’re sort of ambassadors shuffling in new names in composition.

The Classical Underground, Imani Winds’ first release for Koch International Classics (now E1), from 2005

VC: Speaking of which, what percentage of composers on our programs would you say have written music after 2000?

JS: Usually it’s at least half.

MA: Recently yeah, because of all the commissioning.

JS: Look at our programs. Most of the repertoire we’re playing has been written in the last five years.

ME: And often, even if the pieces have been written decades ago, they’re new arrangements. So that is another mix of times and periods that is involved.

FJO: There’s another aspect to the repertoire problem. It’s not just that Beethoven or Shostakovich wrote for string quartet and didn’t write for wind quintet. Each of them wrote a ton of string quartets. Even though Reicha wrote 24 wind quintets and Danzi wrote nine, most of the famous modern-era composers who had written for wind quintet, like Schoenberg, wrote only one. There’s also only one Barber wind quintet. Perle is one of the only people I can think of who wrote four. Composers constantly return to the string quartet but mostly will only write one wind quintet. Maybe part of the reason why certain things don’t work in certain registers is that someone’s first attempt is not going to be as good as the second.

VC: You’re absolutely right. This is what saddens me about the whole concept of commissioning composers and the granting process. Most grant groups are only interested in giving money to people who commission that composer once. You only get one shot at it. Composers have to make a living just like anybody else, and you can’t just necessarily call the composer and say hey, will you be our resident composer? We’re not going to pay you a dime for anything, but you know, you get to write all this music for us. Either the composer is really wanting to write for wind quintet, or we have to just figure out a way of getting money to commission that person over a long period of time, and invest so that person can develop their own inner ear when it comes to a wind quintet setting. Unfortunately, funding is a big issue in that.

We don’t have Brahms. We don’t have Beethoven. We don’t have Tchaikovsky. But we have Paquito D’Rivera. We have Wayne Shorter. We have Jason Moran who just wrote his first wind quintet for us. And it’s incredible. Imagine what he would do with the second and third wind quintet. That’s part of a bigger discussion about where we want to go over time. And if we want to keep coming back to that same composer, investing to make sure that they grow, and that they give us products that we can get out to other wind quintets and spread the name of the quintet to be more like the string quartet.

FJO: I want to get into some details about the composers that you’ve chosen and how you’ve found them. It’s one thing to find a piece that some other group has done, even if it’s buried under a vault. But to ask someone to create a piece that doesn’t exist is something else altogether. You don’t know if it will work for you beforehand. You said that you don’t play music you don’t like. But what if you commission a piece and it turns out that you hate it?

VC: We’ve had that before. We’ve had that before. I think every group has. But I think we try to make it a point of working with that composer, and getting their ideas, before we actually do commission, in the whole process, at the very least, making sure the practicality is O.K., because much of anybody’s dislike of any kind of new music piece has to do with its practicality: if it sits well with your instrument, what kind of stretches you have to do, are you willing to do those stretches? How are your chops? Are they being taken into account?

TSD: Are there places to breathe?

MA: This is why we get drafts. We almost put it in the contract. I would say that it has very rarely been—especially in our commissioning project—where we just say when it’s done, give it to us. We say we would like to see a draft. We would like to see all the things she was just talking about: the chops, the breaks, maybe the horn can’t play in the high register for 20 pages in a row. That’s huge. And that is one reason why the people that we’ve chosen to commission, we kind of know through the wayside, we know them through people. We know them through the industry. And they might know us already, so that there is a possibility for a dialogue.

FJO: I want more details. How do you know them?

JS: Here’s the thing. In my opinion it’s probably the most beautiful and wonderful process because it wasn’t like we said, “All right, let’s look at today’s established composers in chamber music.” We said let’s look at anybody who’s ever written music in whatever genre: jazz, pop music, classical. Let’s just listen to the music and say if this person is somebody that you would like to hear write a wind quintet, that’s open for discussion. We can listen to much of their music and just sort of say, “Can we hear them writing a wind quintet?” And in some cases, there were people that none of us knew. It was just a recording that we dug up. And somebody said, “Hey, I like this person’s orchestral piece. You know, I think we should listen to some of his music.” And some of it was very close associations, like it was with Jason Moran, where he was literally someone that was in our fold—our family so to speak.

TSD: We had this friend who has amassed a vast collection of people who have written classical music who are of African descent. So he let us borrow these huge stacks of CDs. We listened to them in this very room and we all made the decision: “OK, we like Alvin Singleton. We like Roberto Sierra.” So those were two of the composers we got that way.

Monica, Valerie, Mariam, Alvin Singleton, Jeff and Toyin

FJO: Now there’s always an African-American connection or a Latin connection. Simon Shaheen—whom you are currently developing a piece with—is from the Middle East.

JS: We’re workshopping with Simon right now. Um, today was supposed to be one of the days we work on those weird scales.

FJO: So I imagine you’re all going to be playing quarter tones.

JS: And then some. What he hears naturally is what he grew up with, it’s so subtle. But when you hear it, it’s beautiful. I’ll admit to you, I usually practice watching sports, but I can’t with this. It’s not an easy thing. He’s very patient with us.

FJO: I’d like to talk more about how the music you perform is an integral part of the mission of the group: redefining and broadening cultural identity. Part of finding and commissioning composers is searching for people from communities—from the African-American community, from the Latino community, now from the Arabic community—you wouldn’t normally associate with writing wind quintets.

(L-R) Alex Brown, Monica, Jeff Toyin, Valerie, Mariam, Paquito D’Rivera, and Silas Brown during the recording ression for Terra Incognita

MA: I’ll just jump in on that with Paquito. I was living in New Jersey, and I ended up knowing him when I moved to New York in ’97 or so. So when we started playing a piece of his, I told him. I had a friendship with him, and that turned into a working relationship with the group. And now he’s become a great mentor and friend with us. So that was a natural collaboration. And for me personally—I’m half Latino, Mexican, and half Egyptian—through the group, I’ve been able to channel this search for the music that is from these two different regions and influenced maybe at least from these different regions and use this platform of our search for music to keep exploring. Fortunately, everyone’s been on the same page with a little bit of bribing and coercion. So Simon Shaheen was a result of that. And I actually knew about him. He’s a world famous oud player, and I know that Ethos Percussion Ensemble had commissioned him several years back, and so through them, I got the contact information. I thought he lived in Syria or in I don’t know where. But he has a 718 number; he lives in Brooklyn! Living in New York it’s really easy to make these collaborations happen.

ME: We absolutely feel as though the importance of our similar backgrounds—being African-American and Latino—is very important and we wanted that fact to actually be represented in the music that we play and in the musicians that we ask to write for us. But it’s something that we don’t really talk about as much anymore, because it’s obvious. So even though we’ve gone after composers that we’d label unrepresented, at least for the wind quintet, we do want to have this kind of balance occur, which is have them be represented as African-American, Latino composers writing for an African-American, Latino group. At the same time, let their music speak for itself.

We also realized through the Legacy Commissioning Project that collaborating with jazz artists would be a fabulous thing to do, since we’re kind of joining in so many different types of players and thoughts and musicians, people that have written for all facets of every kind of music. Let’s look at really almost straight-ahead jazz players and what their perspective would be for writing for a wind quintet, writing for a classical—in all regards, most regards—type of group. And that has led to so many other types of platforms and landscapes of sound.

FJO: The fruits of working with the jazz musicians definitely took you to another place. It wasn’t just them writing pieces for you, but it was also you working with them and then them playing with you. I remember going to a Wayne Shorter gig and you guys were part of the group up there with Wayne.

ME: He was originally supposed to write a string quartet for the La Jolla Chamber Music Society.

MA: But Mary Lou Aleskie [then La Jolla’s artistic director] convinced him. Apparently she gave him our CDs and then he fell in love with it and then he memorized our CDs and after hearing us play live, we played his piece live. Then this collaboration started where he said, “This is not going to be it. We’re going to keep doing something together. Then he asked us to join him on the road. These concerts that we were able to do here in New York were a direct representation of what we did on tour with him, which was to play a little of our music for his audience then he’d play his half with his group, and then the two played together and not in a background kind of way. It really was an integrated collaboration.

FJO: So all of you improvise?

JS: Yeah, to some level. I mean, certainly not on Wayne’s level. I don’t think anyone’s on Wayne’s level.

TSD: Well, I think all these jazz composers that we’ve collaborated with have brought us to a different level of improvisation, each in their own way: Stefon Harris, whom we also commissioned, has a very thoughtful and organized way of teaching improvisation. He literally sat us in a room and taught us his method of learning how to improvise. Wayne wrote out his parts for us when we were playing with him collaboratively, but every now and then he’d let us play our own little bit of stuff in there—our own little spice, our own little pepper in there. And when we were working with Steve Coleman way back in 2000, he let us do whatever we wanted to do when we were playing with him in his group. He’s more of a free jazz agent, so he liked it when we went all out and all crazy. All these different jazz musicians have brought different stuff to us. And we have this kind of unique, classically based way of improvising.

ME: I think what we improvise on is oftentimes the interpretation of a piece. It’s not necessarily that we will, as Toyin just said, play Cherokee and blow over changes. It’s not about that, but it’s more about allowing ourselves to have freedom, to have real autonomy when we come to a piece of music and there’s never something that’s going to have to happen the same exact way each time. It’s still, of course, with precision and synergy, but allowing for the energy of the moment to take it to another place. And that is improv, in a way. It’s certainly different than your standard jazz definition, but it’s the way that we do it.

FJO: This brings us to the whole question of authenticity and playing idiomatically across genres, and that loaded word: crossover. You’re all classical players with conservatory backgrounds. That’s what you know and what you’ve primarily done. But you’ve had different experiences, and it’s not like other genres of music are unfamiliar to any of you. Jeff played in the pit for Lion King and toured with Luther Vandross. Monica’s father is a jazz musician, so jazz was presumably in her ears from the beginning. But how do all feel about this concept of cross through genres? How do you immerse yourselves to the point that you feel it’s convincing enough?

MA: I think that the most important thing is that we’ve had instruction and that we’ve learned as much as we can from the source. Even when we started exploring music of Piazolla, we did some collaboration concerts with a bandoneon player, Daniele Danelli. We had him come in, and even though we had already been playing Piazzolla, he came in and said, “No, this is how it has to move. Like this, or feel like this. You can’t just add a trill here.” There were certain nuances that we had to make sure didn’t come from our arsenal of crossover back tricks that can be used in every genre. The lines of our little box inside a circle have become more defined so that we’re not just crossing over arbitrarily and willy-nilly. We really understand the need to be authentic. Otherwise anybody could do that. So especially with Simon Shaheen, we’re learning quarter tones and maqām style. It’s like if you go play tennis: Take some lessons first, don’t just go there and start waving your arms. We’re taking lessons. We’re back to school.

FJO: So is crossover a good word or a bad word in your lexicon?

TSD: It’s a necessary word. I don’t think we’ve gotten to where we’ve gotten by thinking any word is bad. We have really learned to explore everything. Imani Winds is more of an inclusive group rather than an exclusive group. If you want to call us crossover, hey, go ahead. Call us whatever you want. Just come to our concert and have a good time.

FJO: It’s ironic, in a way, though, because on the surface you might say your new album, Terra Incognita, is the most crossover of them all. It’s all music by jazz composers. But in a way, it’s the most repertoire driven. It’s the least crossover.

The new album!

ME: It puts your head on the bottom and your feet at the top, because if you listened to Imani Winds, or you kind of have all of our CDs out in front of you, you’ll listen to the Josephine Baker CD and say that is some serious crossover ’cause it’s very jazz influenced. And we have a singer and a percussionist involved. We’ve had percussion on every other album. This is the first one actually that we haven’t had any percussion component to it, so in a beautifully strange way, it does come back to the more core roots of us as a wind quintet unit. But we’re playing this kind of repertoire from these composers. We were definitely trying to teeter on a lot of different concepts with this one.

The Imani Winds’ salute to Josephine Baker

VC: What I love about all this is the library that we’re amassing right now. It’s stacks and stacks of quintet pieces that we’ve researched over the years—things that have been unearthed but also multicultural, multiethnic, multigenre works that you cannot find on or any music store.

FJO: That brings us back to finding repertoire. You talked before about you all getting together and listening to recordings, but what happens when someone you don’t know sends you a score out of the blue?

JS: We get that. And we’ve put out calls for scores so many times.

FJO: Do you play through them all?

TSD: Every single one!

MA: But can we put up a disclaimer, because of this new evolution of “I’ll just email you the PDF”? Print them and mail them to us. And it’s nice if we can have the actual printed parts. Not “I’ll just send you the score.” We’re not going to huddle around.

VC: We’ve done it before, and it’s not pretty.

FJO: But how do you have the time to do that?

TSD: We spend a couple of days doing it. We really block off days and read through the music, and occasionally there’s still some stuff left over that we don’t get to in those couple of days, and then we’ll stick it in on the road somewhere. We’ll read through three or four other pieces.

VC: There have been pieces that we’ve taken on because of composer readings. And different colleges as well. And music festivals, like the Virginia Arts Festival. John Duffy had a composer reading, and a fellow by the name of Narong Prangcharoen wrote a work called Shadow. And we read through it. We liked it so much we programmed it for every main stage concert for two years in a row. And there are other works that have been submitted to us that we’ve included in this Institute library that we feel students will get a lot out of.

FJO: I’m curious how you balance doing what you do, with having lives, or other projects you might do musically. Valerie writes other pieces of music: trios, and even orchestra pieces. That takes time. Jeff does other arranging stuff. Toyin was showing me pictures of her one-year old daughter; that’s something that takes time. How do you balance a life? How frequently are you on the road? How frequently do you play together?

MA: I would say it’s a full-time, first priority commitment for everybody, so a lot of things had to fall to the wayside because of that. But in that commitment, the life of the Imani Winds has been able to flourish. I have a trio I play with that’s mostly in Germany, because that’s where my pianist is based. And so I try to squeeze that in, in the off times when we’re not working, but obviously my calendar is Imani Winds and then you just pluck little days. It’s not always easy. I think when we’re in town for maybe one or two weeks, these guys more than me can have a freelance career—because there are too many clarinetists in New York.

VC: And flutists.

MA: It’s not always possible. It is a little bit of a blessing and a curse, having a group that is so busy. At any given time, there are so many projects that we have to focus on: the new album, the touring schedule, picking the repertoire, starting collaborations, taking our lessons with Simon Shaheen. It’s fancy footwork and the prowess of a great business member, Monica Ellis.

ME: We’ve all taken various roles in the group when it comes to the non-musical side of things. I’m the business manager and accountant and bookkeeper and scheduler…

MA: And executive director.

ME: I guess so, yeah. Everybody’s an artistic director, but right, when it comes to the business side of stuff, I’m the liaison with the managers. That’s just the mundane busy work, which is fun, because I actually kind of like it. I’m um a little on the OCD side with that. I like to have things in order. So I took that task on early on. But as far as the balancing act goes, as Mariam said, it’s really all comes down to Imani Winds. And then you fit other things in. So there isn’t really much of a balancing act. Now with Toyin having a baby, it is the newest and most interesting and fabulous and beautiful addition to our world.

TSD: I took some time off when I had the baby. Now she’s a year old, and I’ve been traveling with her. I didn’t want to bring a four-month old baby on a three-week tour. So I insisted to the group that I couldn’t go much longer than a week in this past year. And this year there’s been a sub coming in and playing when it’s been longer than a week. So that was a decision I just made on my own. And this next year I’m going to try to take on everything again, and I’m going to continue to bring the baby on the road. We’ll see how that goes. But yeah, it’s the group. We’ve been together 13 years going on our 14th year now, and we evolved. We’re growing up. We’re adults now and we have our own responsibilities.

JS: Because we spend so much time together, probably more time together than we do with our significant others at certain points of the year, you have to be able to be yourself. If you’re not, if you don’t have the space within this group to—if you’re not feeling good—not feel good. If you’re feeling great, express that amongst everybody and have everybody share in that. If you can’t do that, then it makes the time on the road really, really difficult. And so what you’re seeing is, like Mariam said, the result of 14 years of maturity, and acceptance, and I think that’s why we’re able to balance it all. That, and a good bottle of scotch.

[group laughter]

MA: We like wine spritzers.

JS: Pinot Noir!