A short journey from classical to jazz

The time will come when a wind quintet composed of five classically trained musicians of color will cease to be a novelty. Until then, we have groups like Imani Winds to remind us that Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream is very much alive.

“Imani denotes unity and faith in Swahili,” explains Valerie Coleman, Imani Winds’ founder, flutist and composer. “It wasn’t until the name Imani Winds popped into my head in 1997 that I had the OK from God to go ahead and start the group. I waspretty much on a God-sent mission, if you will.”

Coleman, then a master’s degree student at Mannes College of Music in New York City, already knew clarinetist Mariam Adam from the Aspen Music Festival. Then she met oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz, who introduced her to bassoonist Monica Ellis.

Soon she was led to the group’s sole male, French hornist and composer Jeff Scott. Save for clarinetist Adam, whose Egyptian and Mexican heritage leads her to dub herself “Egyptican,” everyone is African-American.

“As soon as I got people’s names and credentials,” says Coleman, “I knew, man, we should just go ahead, sit down, read, and see what happens. I had chills during the first rehearsal. There was so much black in the room — the culture, the feeling, the vibe that you get when you’re with people who have your similar background — there was something special we brought to the music from our common upbringing.”

In their first year, after Coleman composed what became the group’s signature tune, “Imosha,” the Imanis began to expand their scope beyond classical music.

Two years ago, their second CD, “The Classical Underground” (Koch), earned them a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Crossover Album.

While they love performing straight classical programs, their latest CD, “Josephine Baker: A Life of Le Jazz Hot!” further reflects their commitment to diverse repertoire.

On Friday, the Imanis rejoin Grammy Award-winning jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter for an evening of exploration.

“Wayne always surprises us,” says Coleman. “One night he decided to whistle in the most gorgeous place, and took the music to another level. For classical musicians, it’s unknown to say ‘I may do something different’ as a half reference conversationally, and then all of a sudden break into something new in the middle of the concert. Wayne has done so much to open our minds.

“Wayne’s music is completely unpredictable. There’s a deep soulful quality to his melodies; they transcend everything that is on solid ground, and take your soul with them.”

IF YOU GO

Imani Winds and the Wayne Shorter Quartet

Presented by: SFJAZZ

Where: Nob Hill Masonic Center, 1111 California St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Tickets: $27 to $85

Contact: (866) 920-5299 or www.sfjazz.org

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