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Jason Moran brings the Imani Winds to the SFJAZZ Center

The members of Imani Winds: Mariam Adam, Valerie Colemen, Monica Ellis, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Jeff Scott
The members of Imani Winds: Mariam Adam, Valerie Colemen, Monica Ellis, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Jeff Scott
courtesy of SFJAZZ

Last night jazz pianist Jason Moran returned to the SFJAZZ Center for the first of four concerts in his capacity as Resident Artistic Director. He used last night to host a recital by Imani Winds, a wind quintet consisting of Valerie Coleman on flute, Toyin Spellman-Diaz on oboe, Mariam Adam on clarinet, Monica Ellis on bassoon, and Jeff Scott on horn. Moran has a personal connection to Imani, since he wrote the four-movement suite Cane for them, which they premiered at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia in 2008. Imani included this on last night’s program, along with their most recent effort, a wind arrangement of the score for Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring.”

This was an ambitious undertaking, and perhaps the most important thing to observe is that the members of Imani knew their limits. They abbreviated the score in the interest of avoiding those sections that really did not lend themselves to wind performance. Equally important (and with more positive connotations), they clearly established a solid command of Stravinsky’s eccentric rhythms. In addition, they almost always succeeded in capturing the right sonorities, even when Stravinsky had chosen other instruments for them.

On the other hand Stravinsky clearly conceived this score in terms of an extraordinarily wide dynamic range. This was the major challenge that Imani could not overcome. It may seem a bit ironic, but a single grand piano has the capacity to achieve effects that are both louder and softer than a wind quintet could summon. The result was that anyone even remotely familiar with the music (even through Fantasia) could not avoid feeling that this approach to Stravinsky’s music was unduly constrained. This had little to do with Imani’s understanding of Stravinsky or the musicianship they brought to their performance of that understanding. It was simply a matter of the fundamental physics of sound at its most unforgiving.

Nevertheless, the overall result was impressive enough that almost everything else on the program seemed pale by comparison. While Imani’s recording of Cane seemed to capture the imagery of the four movements, each within a modest duration of time, last night’s performance tended to sound more rambling. The essence of each of those movements seemed to evade execution. The same could be said of their shorter selections, including two sextet performances with Moran.

The only part of the program that rose above this disconcerting ordinariness came with two solos Moran took before bringing Imani onto the stage. These may best be described as two “deconstructive études,” using fragments from the classical repertoire as points of departure for some highly inventive improvisation. Moran’s sources were particularly impressive. The first was the 29th of 51 devilishly difficult exercises by Johannes Brahms published in 1893. This one consists of only seven measures (all but the last repeated) to be played Presto. It involves parallel octaves in contrary motion, approaching each other from opposite extremes of the keyboard. Fragments of “authentic Brahms” would fade in and out of Moran’s improvisation with haunting results. The same could be said of the middle C-sharp minor section of the D-flat major prelude from Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 28. Many who wax poetic like to call this section “the dark cloud between the raindrops;” and, in Moran’s hands that darkness took on particularly sinister qualities.

The breadth of Moran’s expressiveness in these two short openers turned out to be the perfect introduction to Imani’s adventurous approach to Stravinsky.

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