Chamber Music Yellow Springs presents the cosmopolitan Imani Winds quintet

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: Imani Winds will play on Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Yellow Springs First Presbyterian Church; photo: Pierre Lidar

Chamber Music Yellow Springs (CMYS) has been bringing classical chamber music to the hallowed halls of First Presbyterian Church since 1980. This time, their season is still chamber music—with a twist.

“Our goal this year was to alter our usual formula,” CMYS president Jane Watts says.

This included a percussion group, a classical trio without a cello and Imani Winds, a quintet performing Feb. 21. Imani Winds has been on CMYS’s radar for several years, but this is the first year they were able to get the quintet on the books.

“They are indeed a very interesting group—talented, innovative and unique,” Watts says.

Imani Winds prides itself on continually exploring styles of music and bringing those styles into the classical theme.

“We are a classical music group with open ears,” says Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboist. “We put classical and non-classical together, stretching the boundaries.”

Their program at Yellow Springs will include an original selection based out of the Mississippi delta, a piece written for them by a Cuban composer and traditional Klezmer music, among other songs.

“The [available] music is so rich, with so many flowers you can pluck for a concert,” Spellman-Diaz says. “In one concert, you’re going to Mississippi, Brazil and Argentina.”

Imani Winds has been performing together, with the exception of Mark Dover on the clarinet, for 18 years. It started as a vision of the flutist and composer Valerie Coleman.

“She takes these crazy ideas and makes them work,” laughs Spellman-Diaz.

In 1997, Coleman was in college for classical music. She wanted to put together a quintet that was all musicians of color, and would be able to bring classical music to those who might not regularly be exposed to it.

So Coleman started scouting. She pulled together musicians from Juillard, Manhattan School of Music and her own university, Mannes School of Music.

“Valerie brought us in. She asked around and called us out of the blue,” Spellman-Diaz says. “For her to do this was extraordinary.”

Coleman and Spellman-Diaz were joined by Monica Ellis, bassoon, Mariam Adam, clarinet and Jeff Scott, who composes and plays the French horn. Spellman-Diaz attributes their success and cohesion to having similar backgrounds and schooling, and a “very clear mission of what we wanted to do.”

Some of the places they’ve performed in the last two decades include: Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Disney Hall, Kimmel Center, Wigmore Hall, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Bravo! Colorado, Paris Jazz Festival and La Folle Journée in France.

Along the way, they’ve traveled throughout the United States, South America, Europe and Asia. They’ve been nominated for a Grammy, placed on an iTunes “Best of” list and received several awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Throughout their career, Imani Winds has explored numerable styles and traditions of music, and commissioned composers to write pieces specifically for them, often based on a concept or idea. The latest project pulls from the Passion of the Christ and will incorporate Bach and Coltrane, asking the question, “What if they met and started playing music together?” This project will also include poetry by Spellman-Diaz’s father A.B. Spellman.

A change in the Imani lineup came this year when Adam left the group on good terms to pursue a successful solo career in France. Dover took her place through audition. Although he is not of color and much younger than the rest of the group, his musical prowess and personality fits him solidly in the mix.

“Lots of people were interested (in filling Mariam’s place), and he was the best we heard,” Spellman-Diaz says. “We snatched him up eagerly. Plus, we really wanted a nice person!”

At the Yellow Springs performance, the audience will take a trip to the Red Clay Mississippi delta in an original (and very hard-to-play) piece of music written by Coleman. Spellman-Diaz describes the piece as representing a family reunion, with personality quirks written in through musical gestures.

Another piece written specifically for the quintet is by Paquito D’Rivera, a Cuban composer who lives in New Jersey. It’s called “Kites,” based on poems about a kite that’s flying, but still has strings attaching it to the ground.

There will also be traditional klezmer music and arrangements by Scott.

And no matter what the style, the energy will be high.

“People are always surprised by how much fun we’re having on stage,” Spellman-Diaz says. “They tell us, ‘Wow, I didn’t know classical music could be this fun.’”

Imani Winds will play at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Yellow Springs First Presbyterian Church, 314 Xenia Ave. If you’d like to meet the Imani Winds members, Chamber Music Yellow Springs is offering a dinner in a private home after the concert. Reservations are available up to four days in advance and cost $20.  For tickets or dinner reservations, please visit or call 937.374.8800.


Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at or reach her at


Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at or reach her at

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