An Interview with Mark Dover of Imani Winds & Port Mande

Image credit: Pierre Lider

Some people have a one-dimensional way of looking at music, and how instrumentation is used. Some seek to dismantle this way of thinking. Accomplished musician Mark Dover is one such dismantler.

His work in countless genres with countless groups has shown how he has tried to challenge the way we look at music, and his instrument, the clarinet. Below we discuss Imani Winds’ current album, his group Port Mande, and what other genres he hopes to tackle in the future, amongst other things.

 If you want to learn more about Mark, please read on and check him out here.

Joe:
What have you been up to the past year considering the current circumstances of the world?

Mark:
It’s been a tough time for me, as it has been for all of us. But I’ve been able to figure it out and find a niche. My main gig these days is playing with Imani Winds. It’s a group that’s been around for twenty-three years. We have a good setup. We have our own board. We have been able to raise some money and do a bunch of online stuff.  Most of it is with universities and presenters that were going to have us in person. They transitioned into a virtual thing. I’ve been busy with that. I also teach at Rutgers University and Queens College. I’ve also been busy with some recording sessions. My wife is a singer, and she’s been more impacted than me with work. We’re still finding a way to keep things going.

Joe:
You mentioned Imani Winds. How did you end up joining the group?

Mark:
That process started in 2015. I got an email from them asking me if I was interested in auditioning. They were a group that I grew up listening to. Most woodwind players, who were studying music in college or getting serious in high school, knew about Imani Winds. I had seen them when I was a kid at Interlochen Summer Camp, and again as an undergrad at the University of Michigan. So, you can say I was a fan of theirs. When they hit me up to audition, I obviously jumped at the chance. That was a little over five years ago. Time has been flying.

Joe:
I know the group released the album, Bruits, not too long ago. Can you tell me a little about that?

Mark:
That’s right! It’s actually the first album that I’ve been a part of with Imani Winds. We recorded another album back in 2016, but for a number of reasons, it hasn’t been released yet. It’s an album featuring works by three different composers. The first is Reena Esmail, whose an amazing Indian American composer. The second is Frederic Rzewski, who’s a legend in the music world. The last is Vijay Iyer, who’s a genius Jazz pianist, improviser, and composer. All three pieces are quite different, however, there is a theme of social justice, and equality behind the album. Those themes are important to us as an ensemble and as chamber musicians.

The title track, “Bruits” is a piece that was written by Vijay Iyer. It was actually written for a sextet consisting of a piano and a woodwind quintet. it was inspired by the murder of Trayvon Martin and the Florida stand your ground law. The piece is centered around the murder and the case behind it. It’s a very heavy piece.

Joe:
Let’s talk about one of your other projects, Port Mande. What can you tell us about them? Any plans for a full-length LP anytime in the future?

Mark:
The name of the group is a play on the word portmanteau. A portmanteau is the combining of two different words into one word. For example, smoke and fog become smog. It’s a group between myself and Jeremy Jordan. He is an amazing pianist, both in the Classical realm and Jazz. Jeremy also produces Electronic and Hip-Hop music. I also come from a bunch of different kinds of musical backgrounds and influences. The idea behind the group is that it’s kind of a melting pot, combining different genres in the same way a portmanteau combines different words. We don’t consider ourselves crossover musicians. Instead, we consider ourselves musicians that can meld seamlessly into different styles of music, and combine them in different ways. We put out an EP, over the summer called, Is This Loss?. It was the first project we recorded together. We are hoping to put together a full album sometime in the next year or so.

Joe:
I know you collaborated with the group Vulfpeck for the album Thrill of the Arts as well as their live album. How did that collaboration get started?

Mark:
The Vulfpeck guys and I all met at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor is also my hometown, by the way. Theo (Katzman) and I were in freshman Jazz band together. We go way back, over fifteen years. I met all of them at different points and played with them throughout my time at the University of Michigan. When I moved to New York, Jack Stratton, who’s the founder, hit me up. That was early 2015. He asked if I wanted to be a part of the album and arrange some material. One of the tunes I worked on was called “Back Pocket,” which ended up becoming one of their biggest songs. That’s how that started. When they’re in New York, I always play with them. I got to play the Madison Square Garden Show, which is what the live album is from. They’re great and have been amazing friends to me for years. I love them.

Joe:
Is there any chance you’d collaborate with them again in the future?

Mark:
I totally would, but it hasn’t come up. The thing about the clarinet is that it’s not an instrument that you would normally find in a situation like that. But I absolutely would love to work with them again in the future, if they’d have me.

Joe:
How did you get started with music, and the clarinet?

Mark:
I grew up in Ann Arbor. It’s an amazing town for music education. In fifth grade, everyone in the school district must choose an instrument. It’s a requirement. They provide free instruments to everyone who needs one. It was kind of random how I chose the clarinet. I think my hands were too small for the saxophone, so they started me on the clarinet. I didn’t take it super seriously at first. I was doing musical theater. My mom used to be an actress, so she had me in musicals. Around twelve or thirteen, my voice changed. I started to drift away from the musical theater stuff, and more towards the clarinet. That’s how it happened.

The other great thing about Michigan is that we have these great music camps. The two big ones are Blue Lake and Interlochen. The camps are amazing places to study music. I went to both camps at different points as I started to get serious about music and the clarinet. By the time I was fourteen or fifteen, I was practicing two or three hours a day. I was really getting into it. Around the same time, I knew that this is what I wanted to do with my life.

Joe:
I know you have had your hand in many pots, genre-wise. What has enabled you to play so many different styles of music? Is there any type of music you have not played that you would like to take a stab at in the future?

Mark:
I think what draws me to different styles of music is my exposure to listening to different types of music in my formative years. When I was a kid my first love was Motown. My parents are both from Detroit. From there, I got really into 90s Hip-Hop and R&B. I came to Classical music and Jazz later. Once I got into all those types of music, I started to listen to other kinds of music. The biggest problem for me is that there are not enough hours in the day to explore everything I would like to.

My instrument is a versatile instrument, but it’s tough to fit into certain things. One style of music that I’ve always wanted to learn how to play is Bluegrass. It’s a style of music that I love listening to, but you never see clarinet. There’s an amazing saxophonist by the name of Eddie Barbash who has become sort of an inspiration. He has played with Vulfpeck and was the saxophonist on The Late Show with Colbert for years. He’s taken the saxophone and made it a part of the sound of modern Bluegrass music. I’ve always thought it would be so cool to figure out how to do that on clarinet. But, you know, there are only so many hours in the day. I have a two-year-old at home, so it’s already barely enough time just to learn the music that I have to know.

Joe:
So, what’s next for you musically? Any new projects or albums we should know about?

Mark:
As I mentioned, the full album with Jeremy, and me is the next thing on the horizon. Short of that, Imani Winds is just starting to do live performances again. So, that is pretty exciting. I have some things I can’t talk about just yet because they’re still in flux. I’m looking forward to the future. Just getting out there and playing live. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t played any concerts since March 2020. I’m trying to take it one thing at a time right now, and not to look too far into the future. There’s still just so much unknown.

I’m trying to focus on getting my performances lined up for the next year. Just shedding and getting the cobwebs out. You can always practice, but there’s something about playing live. It’s something that you have to keep doing. You have to get back into the swing of it. I listen to a lot of podcasts with comics, and a lot of stand-ups are saying the same thing. You got to get out there and get back into the habit of performing in person again. So, trying to focus on that for the most part.

Joe:
What advice do you have for young musicians or people, in general, looking for a career in the music industry?

Mark:
I get asked this question a lot. I think I could only tell them what worked for me. What worked was tunnel vision, and not having a Plan B. My dad and I didn’t always agree on that. My parents wanted me to have stability. They wanted me to have a backup plan. I just feel like, at least when you’re young, you have to really be sure that this is what you want to do. Most people aren’t getting rich from it. It’s a tough life. It’s a tough way to make a living. But if you want it, go for it. You have to go full steam ahead. You must be vulnerable. Take the learning of your instrument and your craft seriously. Try to move forward and not get distracted. Put all your eggs in that basket. I think if you try to play it too safe, you get to the point where you start to get complacent. I say this knowing how serious of a pursuit it is to play music for a living, and how much privilege it is. You can’t take it for granted. It’s tons of luck that got me to where I am. I try to keep my head down. I’m still in the mindset that it could all end, even though I feel like I’m doing pretty well. I could lose all of this, not that I have so much. I live in a one-bedroom apartment. [Laughs]. So, cherish what you have. That would be my advice.

Image Credit: Pierre Lider

Interested in learning more about the work of Mark Dover? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Records, Roots & Ramblings, by Joe O’Brien, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/records-roots-ramblings-archives/

About Post Author

Joe O'Brien

Joe has always been a huge music fan. Growing up on Long Island, NY, USA, Joe did chores and dumpster dove for bottles with his best friend Andrew to trade bottles for money to buy vinyl. Joe is a Registered Nurse in the ER by day, and a life-long music lover by night. Having been an avid consumer of all things music since he was a child, Joe’s diverse collection of over 3,000 vinyl albums, plus several hundred tapes and CDs, tells the story of a man who simply loves music. Joe’s goal is to write about what he is most passionate about and share new and exciting music. Joe lives on Long Island, NY with his beloved dog Scarlett.
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