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The Anatomy of Cultural Diversity, With Imani Winds and Stefon Harris

October 4, 2009

Imani Winds, a wind quintet whose stylish grace and charm match the high quality of sound produced from their instruments, hold a substantial pedigree among fellow artists, audiences, and critics alike. These are musicians for whom artistic risks are to be taken cautiously and, once taken, followed through with abandon. At the very least, this type of conviction garners respect, but being in top form while you do it is special stuff. Add to this ensemble the collaboration of Stefon Harris — one of the world’s premier vibraphonists, known for his deft musicianship and his engaging performances — and this pedigree increases fourfold, one for each mallet Harris wields.

Sunday’s concert at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, featuring the Winds, who were joined by Harris in the second half, had a warmth and ebullient charm that made clear how much these musicians loved playing with each other, and how much they loved performing for their audience. The quintet, always decked in elegant dress and infectious smiles, is something of a living, breathing example of the cultural diversity that is American music, which they champion. Harris, a previous member of the SFJAZZ Collective and formerly a five-year artist in residence for San Francisco Performances, complements the Winds in this regard; equally trained in classical music and jazz as a student at the Manhattan School of Music in the 1990s, he himself makes a strong case for what American music both looks and sounds like.

In fact, the only composition on display that was not penned by an American composer — specifically, an American composer present on stage that evening — was the Quintette by the 20th-century French composer Jean Françaix, which paled in comparison to the other three pieces on the program. This is not to slight Françaix’ writing, which has its own charm and was executed flawlessly by the quintet, but rather to speak of the special quality of music written specifically for Imani Winds.

The first two such pieces were composed by members of the quintet: Red Clay and Mississippi Delta and Homage to Duke by flautist Valerie Coleman and hornist Jeff Scott, respectively. Coleman’s work is a whimsical toe-tapper (or finger-snapper, as Coleman herself demonstrated) that showcases the clarinet, played by Mariam Adam, brilliantly. Scott’s piece pays deference to Duke Ellington’s profoundly beautiful Come Sunday with savory clustered dissonances, bassoon ostinatos (carried expertly by Monica Ellis), and contrapuntal moments that crystallized the already heightened sense of group interaction.

Defiantly Out of the Box The centerpiece of this concert, which came in the second half along with Harris, was actually a box — literally and metaphorically. Harris explained that though he usually does not take commissions, the opportunity to write for Imani Winds was one he couldn’t pass up, and how to write for such a unique ensemble was, interestingly, both the initial challenge and, ultimately, what generated the content for his original Anatomy of a Box (A Sonic Painting in Wood, Metal, and Wind).

The box in question is an eight-tone log drum: a wooden box with slits carved into one of its sides, forming tongues of different pitches that when struck resonate within the body of the box. Harris turned to this instrument in a moment of compositional exasperation away from the piano, where he composes. The warm resonance of those eight pitches provided for Harris a way of thinking, well, outside the box and, as his piece developed further, also a way of coming up with the elementary pitch material for an impressive array of chordal harmonies.

Anatomy of a Box oscillates between improvised and prewritten sections (sometimes occurring simultaneously), tension and release, imitative propulsion and choralelike restraint, chaos and organization. Harris, a preeminent improviser, created space for members of Imani Winds to spontaneously create melody, as well. The piece may be thought of as being divided into three sections: one where the ensemble players play off each other, the second where they play on top of an electronic drone (introduced and controlled by Harris), and the final where the eight notes of the log drum are looped electronically, which serves as a foundation for captivating ensemble playing and the most interesting and fulfilling moments of the composition.

Harris was right when he told the audience that what he set out to create with Anatomy of a Box was “American chamber music,” which is not necessarily classical or jazz but certainly a mix of both. Except what Harris said really applied to the entire concert: a testament that, after it was all said and done, was like preaching to the choir.

Kwami Coleman is a Ph.D. student in musicology at Stanford, with a concentration in jazz history. He was formerly an artist's liaison with Jazz at Lincoln Center.