A page of the graphic score to Coin Coin
A page of the graphic score to Coin Coin

It took her more than a decade, but saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts has arrived at a full expression of her aesthetic. In the late 90s, when she still lived in Chicago, she impressed small local audiences at the Velvet Lounge and the Empty Bottle, playing mostly in Sticks & Stones, a trio with bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Chad Taylor that mixed post-Ornette Coleman grace with 60s free-jazz turbulence. Since then her horn playing has grown even stronger and more fearless—the 2011 quartet record Live in London, on Barry Adamson’s Central Control label, demonstrates just how much more—and her musical vision has evolved into something deep, multifaceted, and powerful. Recorded proof of the latter arrives May 10 in the form of Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres, her debut release for Constellation—best known as home to the crew of adventurous rock musicians in the orbit of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Silver Mt. Zion. The first installment of a projected 12-part opus, it’s a quantum leap for Roberts, its ambition and complexity unprecedented in her discography.

Roberts left town in 1999 to attend graduate school at a conservatory in Boston—she prefers not to name it, in part because of the “disgusting” cost of her education—but she’d already learned a lot from some of Chicago’s most respected saxophonists. “I really feel like I took Fred Anderson’s history in music course on Sundays,” she says, “and audited Von Freeman’s seminar on Tuesday nights.” She moved to New York upon finishing school, and she’s been working on Coin Coin since early 2006, after receiving a $5,000 grant from prestigious NYC performance space Roulette to create and perform a new piece. That same year she also won a $10,000 Van Lier fellowship, awarded to provide “support for talented, culturally diverse young people who are seriously dedicated to a career in the arts.”

So far she’s only finished half of Coin Coin‘s 12 chapters, but she’s got the rest mapped out. Though Gens de Couleur Libres (which translates to “free people of color”) is the only one yet released, she’s performed the first five and has shopped live recordings to labels. Coin Coin takes its title from a nickname Roberts’s maternal grandfather gave her as a child—it was also the nickname of 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 suite’s lyrics and spoken-word parts address African-American history as far back as the slave trade of the late 17th century, and Metoyer is a major figure in chapter one.

The sort of jazz played by Sticks & Stones is just one thread in the dense fabric of Gens de Couleur Libres. 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. Roberts says she was working out this aesthetic internally more than a decade ago, without even realizing it.

“I had this really awful decoupage period,” she explains. “I was painting my [instrument] cases and doing all of these collages, and I didn’t understand yet that what I was trying to do with that was what I wanted to do with my music—I just hadn’t figured out a way to do it. I was talking to my maternal grandmother, who lives on the west side, and she was telling me about how her mother and father used to quilt—they were sharecroppers. She explained this system to me, taking all of these different pieces of worn-out clothing to create this whole other thing, which was kind of a living, breathing representation of the past. That’s what I wanted to try to do with these scores and pieces.”

Most Coin Coin concerts have been in New York, but Roberts has also performed portions of the piece in Zurich, Paris, Amsterdam, and Venice, as well as in American cities like Houston, Baltimore, Seattle, and Chicago—the three local performances so far have been June 2006 at the Empty Bottle, December 2006 at Gallery 37, and May 2008 at the Cultural Center. The July 2010 performance captured on Gens de Couleur Libres took place live, for an audience of 30 or so, at the Hotel2Tango studio in Montreal. Roberts has made lots of connections in that city over the past decade: she’s often performed or vacationed there, and she participated in an educational outreach effort for at-risk youth that operated under the auspices of an international research project called Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice and a venue called Casa del Popolo. All 15 musicians who support her on the album are from Montreal, and many of them were involved in previous Coin Coin performances there, which date back to June 2007.

“I started Coin Coin so that I could create my own compositional system, which at the time I was calling panoramic sound quilting,” Roberts says. “I noticed that I would write these things which weren’t full pieces. They were snippets, and I would spend a lot of time trying to edit them, but I couldn’t really figure out what to do with them. I also wanted to create a project so I could explore some other elements that I couldn’t really explore in some of the other bands I’ve been in, in terms of dealing with theater and spectacle.”

Chapter one of Coin Coin begins in 1742, Metoyer’s birth year, and the entire cycle starts in 1685—as far back as Roberts has traced her family tree. (The trail ends in what’s now the UK, not in Africa.) Roberts is particularly interested in her connection to the Great Migration of the 20th century—her ancestors were part of it, moving to Chicago from Mississippi and Louisiana—but recently she’s pulled back from her family history in favor of something more universal. In chapter two she used an interview transcribed straight from her grandmother’s mouth, but newer portions of the work use fewer concrete biographical details and more family folklore. “I need to protect these people and their stories,” she says. “I may be telling their stories in a way that they didn’t want them to be told.”

Roberts is responsible for almost all the vocals on the album, and delivers the texts with a strong theatrical bent, especially on “Libation for Mr. Brown: Bid Em In”—an adaptation of Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Bid ‘Em In,” from his classic 1960 album Sin & Soul . . . and Then Some. She imitates the spiel of a slave auctioneer, taking bids and talking up the merchandise—at one point she praises the looks of a female slave, noting that she’ll make a “damn good breeder.” “Don’t you mind them tears / That’s one of her tricks,” she says. “She’s healthy, she’s strong, she’s well-equipped / She makes a fine lady’s maid when she’s properly whipped.”

Most of the eight pieces on Gens de Couleur Libres use their freely improvised passages and patchwork structures to create a kind of rambling, intuitive feel—when an arrangement repeats a section, in the manner of a chorus or a verse, that’s the exception, not the rule. Though Roberts uses chunks of Western notation in each score, most of her writing is in graphic notation, which gives the musicians a great deal of freedom to shape how the pieces move and develop. The arrangements juggle shifting melodic parts, countermelodies, and propulsive riffs among several clusters of instruments—brass, strings, and even the vocal-like harmonizing duo of singer Gitanjali Jain and musical-saw virtuoso Lisa Gamble.

Roberts tends to pile up disparate passages within a single piece, but rather than creating an incoherent clutter, this works to mirror the way memory scrambles chronology and logic over time. And despite the complexity and idiosyncrasy of the material, the performances are never tentative—probably because Roberts had the luxury of conducting a few group rehearsals, something she’s only managed a handful of times since beginning Coin Coin. “Funding was a big problem,” she says, “which is one of the reasons I would constantly perform some of these pieces—so that I could tweak and edit them, because I didn’t have the funding to rehearse them. I could really only do it on the gig.”

Gens de Couleur Libres doesn’t tell a single straightforward story, but its indictment of slavery is no less powerful for that—and even though it’s just a single segment of an epic work, it has a breathtaking sweep. Memory is a powerful thing, but it’s so private, fluid, and unreliable that it can seem almost impossible to capture in a work of art—and history is often no more stable, once you look closely enough. Roberts has succeeded at evoking both, though, and gives her audience a long look at something ghostly, tragic, and beautiful.