Inspired by the Swahili word for faith, Valerie Coleman was determined to counter any notion of wind quintets being light and fluffy.

It's now been 20 years since the composer and flautist founded Imani Winds, which has gained a reputation as one of the most adventurous around playing compositions with African, Latin American and US influences.

Coleman says "light and fluffy" started to disappear some time ago as European composers such as Paul Hindemith and Gyorgy Ligeti - the latter's avant-garde music illuminates the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 - started to write for such ensembles.

"This music has a real depth and weight to it, not only in the sound of the instruments but in the quality of the compositions themselves," she says.

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Now wrapping up a two-week concert tour of New Zealand, Imani Winds is in Auckland next Thursday with a programme that offers a mix from Ravel and Piazzolla to a Coleman original, as well as her transcription of Mongo Santamaria's Afro Blue.

"This is best known from John Coltrane recordings," Coleman says. "I wanted to bring some of that jazz sound to the group, and there's even a little surprise in the way of audience interaction."

But she's not giving away exactly what, only to hint - enthusiastically - about the sonic treasure trove that comes from a line-up of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn, quite unlike that of the more homogeneous string quintet.

She feels wind players have a special flexibility when it comes to making music together and this brings a unique quality to their musical interactions.

"It goes further than that," Coleman says. "Collectively, we can transform ourselves into anything from a Dixieland band to the Hammond organ that you hear in so much gospel music."

Her African-American heritage is important to her and she's proud that the Washington Post's classical music critic Anne Midgette stressed this when placing her among the world's 35 top woman composers.

"I'm proud that Anne's judgements were based on the impact that we composers have had on the new classical music scene - and I am thrilled for my group."

Thursday's concert includes an extract from her Portrait of Josephine, written in 2006 to celebrate the centenary of Josephine Baker. The entertainer is clearly a major cultural hero for Coleman, escaping from the insidious racism of 1920s US to find freedom and fame as a dancer and singer in Paris.

She spied for the Allies in World War II and was active in the American Civil Rights movement in the '50s and '60s. Like film star Angelina Jolie, Baker adopted an ethnically diverse family of 13 children, whom she called her Rainbow Tribe, and Coleman treasures the contact her group had with Baker's last surviving son.

"Jean-Claude had a restaurant in New York named Chez Josephine and we're sitting around one of its tables on the cover of our album, A Life of le Jazz Hot."

One of the thrills of this NZ tour has been premiering the specially commissioned Snapshots by young Kiwi composer Natalie Hunt.

"It's pretty cool, based on different sounds that Natalie found on her African journeys," Coleman says. "There are also a few auxiliary instruments that are quite a spectacle to see, which we'll talk about on stage."

Working with Hunt for just an hour, the Americans were impressed with her assurance and confidence.

"Natalie knew exactly what she wanted. There was no second guessing. When we made some slight suggestions, she said 'no' and we said 'Okay, girl!' That's what you want to hear; a composer who knows her own vision."

• As a school holiday bonus, Imani Winds offer a free concert for 8-12 year-olds on Thursday morning.

What: Imani Winds
Where & when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday at 7.30pm
What: Imani Winds, Musical Journey Around the World
Where & when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday at 11am (free with registration required at bringthefamily@chambermusic.co.nz)