Woodwind group captures spirit of Josephine Baker

Posted: July 04, 2007

Sounds unlikely, this idea that a polished, well-behaved, classical configuration known as the woodwind quintet could come up with a Josephine Baker tribute saucy enough to do her justice.

But listen to "Don't Touch My Tomatoes" from Imani Winds' new release, Josephine Baker: A Life of Le Jazz Hot! (Koch Classics). Horn and bassoon bark a repeated rhythmic pattern, the clarinet is like something out of Gershwin's Cuban Overture, and the flute part is a warm island breeze. In the arrangement by the group's hornist, Jeff Scott, the ensemble is unrecognizable as classical habitué; its sound snuggles up close to the spirit of Baker and belts out a joyous echo.

Scott enlisted help. He adds a percussionist, Joseph Tompkins, and vocalist Rene Marie, a musician who really makes this disc soar. Marie is featured on three tracks. In addition to the hilarious "Don't Touch My Tomatoes," she sings "Je Voudrais," in which arranger Scott uses very quiet brush-stroke percussion and bass clarinet to make the mood more nightclub than concert hall, and "Donnez-moi La main," a habanera about a fortune-teller.

Though Marie's appearance is brief, she creates a big presence for herself. She's one of those singers who can do anything - incredible flexibility and spot-intonation don't hurt - but her great gift is the way she can adjust her sound to fit the mood and lyric. She's a seductress. No, she's a strong-willed Frenchwoman. Or maybe a light-touch comedienne. All of the above and, one suspects, a good deal more.

Marie's three tracks are bookended by two original works - multi-movement portraits of Baker by members of the group - and this is where tributes can go horribly wrong. Too much adoration is rarely good for art. But the Imani musicians, who have been performing together for a decade, turn out to be superb composers as well as instrumentalists: I like both pieces. Jeff Scott's La Belle Sirène Comme le Comédien skillfully evokes Baker's journey from St. Louis to Paris. It has the gift of directness.

Valerie Coleman's Suite: Portrait of Josephine has eight movements with titles no less concrete than Scott's - including "Ol' St. Louis," with a monstrously swinging part for the horn played with big growl and swagger by Scott. But in addition to her programmatic suggestions, Coleman, Imani's flutist, has incredible style. She uses extreme instrumental ranges to great effect, has an ear for unusual doublings, and blends American and French sensibilities. One movement, "Les Milandes" (Baker's château), is so deeply pastoral and meditative it could stand by itself as gentle encore.

Woodwind groups all over should take note. In crossing genres and pushing the potentialities of sound, Imani is expanding the woodwind quintet repertoire, and in fact has done nothing less than clear a contemporary path for an instrumental confab that seemed previously content with mere nostalgia.


Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com.

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