Matana Roberts
  • Jason Fulford
  • Matana Roberts

I’m a bit ashamed that it took me until this week to listen to Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile (Constellation), the stunning new album by saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts, a Chicago native. Its 2011 predecessor, Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres—the first in a projected 12-part series dealing with race and history over the decades her family has lived in the U.S.—blew me away with its stylistic range and dramatic sweep. She calls her process “panoramic sound quilting,” and her first installment, recorded with 15 musicians from Montreal’s underground music scene, registered as a towering achievement.

As I wrote at the time: “It’s a digressive, free-associative patchwork, sliding from episode to episode in a casual, almost conversational way, so that the story elements feel more evocative than strictly narrative. Roberts draws on a broad array of African-American traditions, from swing to blues to soul to free jazz, and the vocals combine influences from work songs, lullabies, spirituals, and (from the sound of it) primal scream therapy.”

The record veered freely from free jazz to noise rock, which made sense considering that her collaborators were drawn largely from the circle of musicians surrounding Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Silver Mt. Zion. The new record was made in Brooklyn, where Roberts has lived for more than a decade—she left Chicago in 1999—with a much smaller cast drawn from that city’s rich jazz community: pianist Shoko Nagai, trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Thomson Kneeland, drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and the operatic tenor Jeremiah Abiah. Unsurprisingly, the 18-section suite draws explicitly from the composer’s deep roots in the Chicago jazz scene, and while on the surface she doesn’t seem to be stitching together as many disparate musical and textual fabrics as she did on the first recording, the way each piece flows into the next without interruption is just as impressive in its ambition and logical flow.

While Gens de Couleur Libres focused heavily on the historical figure Marie Therese Metoyer, an almost legendary freed slave and businesswoman who helped establish a creole community in Louisiana around the turn of the 19th century (according to Roberts’s grandfather, he’s distantly related to Metoyer by marriage), the new installment is more personal. Texts sung-spoken by Roberts and other group members weave together interviews with Roberts’s grandmother (the titular “Mississippi Moonchile”) with excerpts from a speech given by civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hammer at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, while Abiah overlays formally strict opera singing. Some of the pieces are based on traditional American folk tunes, but even the original material feels familiar, with the saxophonist freely borrowing strains from across the entire history of jazz—the first part of the album touches on bebop, free jazz, swing, New Orleans polyphony, Mingus-style breakdowns, elegant blues, and even gospel—with especially powerful contributions by Palmer, whose full-bodied tone fits beautifully with Roberts’s pleading, tender alto. In a recent cover story published in the British music magazine the Wire Roberts says, “I’m pretty sure what I’m doing, somebody was doing in Chicago in ’65. I’m OK with that. I’m doing what I’m being told to do, by my own creative music. I’m just kind of following.” Yet while there’s truth to what Roberts says, she is also carving out her own aesthetic space, one that’s startling in its originality and gripping in its historic and social power.

Below you can check out “Amma Jerusalem School/For This Is,” a couple of the pieces from the album, and for the moment you can stream the entire album at the Wire.

Today’s playlist:

Wolfgang Rihm, Kontinent (Col Legno)
Guillermo Klein & Los Guachos, Carrera (Sunnyside)
Gui Amabis, Trabalhos Carnivoros (YB Music)
Cody Chesnutt, Landing on a Hundred (Vibration Vinyard)
Various artists, Theppabutr Productions: The Man Behind the Molam Sound 1972-75 (Zudrangma)

Peter Margasak writes about jazz every Friday.