Imani Winds close first UC season with homage to Gwendolyn Brooks

Thu May 04, 2017 at 9:31 am

By Tim Sawyier

The Imani Winds performed Wednesday night at the Logan Center.
The Imani Winds performed Wednesday night at the Logan Center.

The Imani Winds wrapped up their first year as the University of Chicago’s Don Michael Randel Ensemble in Residence Wednesday night at the Logan Center. The UChicago Presents program was part of “Our Miss Brooks—100,” an ongoing celebration of Chicago poetess Gwendolyn Brooks’ centenary, and was titled after her poem “A Song in the Front Yard.” Each work represented was written specifically for the Imani Winds, who gave them all committed advocacy, though the evening’s overall impression was stylistically homogeneous.

Imani has two composers in its ranks, flutist Valerie Coleman and horn player Jeff Scott. The evening opened with the latter’s 2005 work Titilayo, titled after the Nigerian soprano Titilayo Abedokun, who wrote the melody on which the piece is based. A five-minute romp featuring call and response playing and exotic extended flute techniques, Titilayo made for a festive curtain-riser.

Imani’s composers remained in the spotlight with the next work—Coleman’s Suite: Portraits of Josephine, a four-movement suite excerpted from a larger work inspired by the life of entertainer Josephine Baker. The opening “St. Louis 1920” began with Coleman herself languidly counting off “Ah-one, ah-two…” ushering in a sultry jazz movement, memorable for its wailing clarinet and French horn solos from Mark Dover and Scott, respectively.

The following “Les Milandes” depicts a chateau Baker cherished and lost, and had a fitting sense of longing, enhanced by oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz’s switch to English horn. The ensuing “Paris 1925” was infused with bubbly jazz textures. The work concludes with “Thank You Josephine,” an arrangement of Baker’s song “J’ai Deux Amours,” the sincere, unassuming melody of which was nostalgic and affecting. Unfortunately, applause between each of the Suite’s brief movements compromised the overall cohesiveness of this commendable work.

The first half concluded with Wayne Shorter’s Terra Incognita, the composer’s first foray into the wind quintet genre. Part of Shorter’s note for this work reads, “The courage needed to live with dignity in a world beset with the unimaginable is the catalyst to the creation of this work. In the face of an unpredictable future, the story of the ‘human condition’ promises to transcend even the unknown.”

At least on a first hearing, there is no evidence of such profound existential grappling here. The work is in an alternately modal and jazz-inflected idiom, meanders for fifteen minutes becoming more or less agitated, but without suggesting any real form, development, or indeed content.

The program order of the second half was shuffled to begin with Jason Moran’s Cane, another first effort at a wind quintet. The title refers to the Cane River in Louisiana (and makes a good pun on the reeds of three members of the woodwind family). The quintet depicts events from the life of Marie Therèse Coin Coin, an ancestral matriarch of Moran’s. The opening “Togo to Natchitoches,” evocatively depicts Coin Coin’s journey from Africa to the Unites States with a chugging accompaniment supporting longer lyrical lines and “Coin Coin’s narrative” offered another jazz-inflected movement.

“Gens libre de couleur” conveys Coin Coin’s purchasing her children’s freedom from slavery and is a tender song that bespeaks maternal devotion. The lively closing “Natchitoches to New York” convincingly evoked an urban cityscape. Bassoonist Monica Ellis was a grounding force here and throughout the evening, the authority of her extensive verbal commentary matched by that of her playing.

The program closed with two of the three world premieres in honor of Gwendolyn Brooks. (Nkeiru Okoye’s Affirmations for Mabbie was listed in the program but left unperformed without explanation.) 

Courtney Bryan’s Blooming was inspired by the closing lines of Brooks’ “The Second Sermon on the Warpland” from her collection In the Mecca. Bryan’s five-minute work is a nondescript affair, loosely tonal, moderately paced, but not distinctive; its inspiration could have been any number of things. The composer was on hand to receive appreciative applause nonetheless.

The evening’s finale was also its most successful work, Coleman’s Bronzeville, a sextet for piano and woodwind quintet, for which the Imani players were joined by pianist Alex Brown. The piece is incidental music to three of Brooks’ poems, which are recited by the players over the course of the work. The first poem “For Sara Miller, Sculptor” is accompanied by dramatic solos that suggest the physical solidity of sculpture, and “The Bean Eaters” is harmonically piquant. The work closes with Brooks’ most famous verse “We Real Cool” and ends with impetuous, fatalistic writing that captures the laissez-faire swagger of the poem’s youths. Throughout Coleman used Morse code for the words “sisters,” “Bronzeville,” and “God” to create rhythmic ostinatos—a particularly inventive touch.

After a single curtain call, as an encore the Imani players offered a New Orleans Dixieland arrangement of “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” which featured sleazy slides and instrumental howling that made for a decidedly more sensual, freewheeling take on the gospel tune.

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