Flowing With Ali: Chamber Riffs On The Sixties Scene

The Imani Winds are in residence at Chamber Music Northwest’s Summer Festival. (Photos by Tom Emerson)
By James Bash

PORTLAND, Ore. – Now in its 48th season, Chamber Music Northwest’s Summer Festival could easily fall into a middle-age slumber, but it continues to reinvigorate its concert format with new artists and fresh programming, including commissioned works. Among the young and diverse musicians invited to the festival were the Imani Winds and the Harlem Quartet. Their “Sounds from 20th Century America” concert at Lincoln Performance Hall on July 8 provided a breath of fresh air with two world premieres augmented by multimedia and several jazz-inflected pieces that sent the audience home with a smile.

The Harlem Quartet performed with clarinetist David Shifrin.

The Imani Winds, resident artists at this year’s festival, consists of five musicians, including two acclaimed composers: Valerie Coleman, flute, and Jeff Scott, French horn. Earlier in the week, Coleman’s anthem to immigration, A Right to Be, and Scott’s Passion for Bach and Coltrane with poet A. B. Spellman were performed, and over the weekend each had a CMNW-commissioned piece performed.

Coleman’s Shot Gun Houses was inspired by the neighborhood in Louisville, Ky., where the she grew up. It was also the birthplace of Muhammad Ali, and the piece, played by the Harlem Quartet and clarinetist David Shifrin (the longtime artistic director of CMNW), was imbued with Ali’s witty and boastful style with the clarinet strutting its stuff and jousting at times with the strings. The third movement, “Grand Avenue,” was prefaced with remarks by violinist Melissa White, whose mother was a close friend of Ali’s family. The music flowed gently to the final movement when Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. A propulsive dance suggested Ali’s footwork in the ring, and a combined sound from the violin and clarinet was meant to evoke the bell between rounds. The ensemble didn’t pull any punches and scored a technical knockout with incisive playing.

Scott’s Fantasy on 1967 was commissioned to honor the 50th wedding anniversary of two of the festival’s board members. Played by the Imani Winds, the music was a medley of famous rock and roll pieces that hit the top of the charts in 1967, which was also the year Scott was born. A brief documentary-style film introduced the piece with a visual blast from the past with snippets from Vietnam War news reels and from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, including a clip that showed Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire and smashing it on the stage floor.

The Harlem Quartet played jazz standards and Cuban music.

Scott’s fusion of rock tunes kicked off with “I’m a Believer” (The Monkees), which featured a trippy rhythm section with bass clarinet (Mark Dover) and bassoon (Monica Ellis). Scott showed plenty of swagger carrying the melody of “Light My Fire (The Doors), and Dover, who has a lot of jazz experience, created tremendous riffs that put the bass clarinet into the stratosphere. Playful lines for oboe (Toyin Spellman-Diaz) and flute led the way in “Brown Eyed Girl” (Van Morrison) and “Lovely Rita Meter Maid.” (The Beatles). The group totally wigged out on “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” (Jefferson Airplane) with Dover adding extraterrestrial licks on the clarinet.

The Imani also performed Lalo Schifrin’s La Nouvelle Orleans, which evoked a funeral procession. It began with a slow walk interrupted by a hesitation step, which gave the music a slightly off-kilter feeling. It all staggered forward and became a chattering shuffle before gradually slipping into a syrupy passage with an odd harmonization between clarinet and French horn. The pace then picked up with a jazzy bounce, punctuated by brief, raspy sounds from the French horn and a soulful cry from the oboe.

The Harlem Quartet gave the audience a taste of Cuban dance music with Guido Gavilán’s Cuarteto en Guaguancó. The composer’s son, violinist Ilmar Gavilán, and violist Jaime Amador were especially emotive whenever they led with the melody.

The quartet also played several arrangements of jazz standards that are featured in its debut album, Take the “A” Train. Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema” bent the melody just a tad and added some unexpected harmonies. Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” offered several individual solos that had an impromptu feel. Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” had numerous impromptu-like detours and a head-nodding beat, wrapping things up with a light-hearted nightcap.