Matana Roberts: COIN COIN Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile
Talk about ambitious: not only is Matana Roberts a bold composer, saxophonist, arranger, and conceptualist, her latest release, COIN COIN Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile, is the second installment in a projected twelve-part opus, the subsequent chapters of which the Chicago-born, New York City-based sound experimentalist has already worked out. It's telling that Roberts' ‘thank you' list for the recording includes shout-outs to the AACM (The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) as well as a number of associated figures—Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, etc. After all, the connections between her music and the kind symbolized by the AACM are strong, and it would be easy to close one's eyes while listening to the fifty-minute release and find oneself transported back to an earlier era. That history on content and thematic as well as musical grounds plays a major role in the work is evident in its incorporation of spoken and sung narratives and subject matter that touches upon issues of race, ancestry, oppression, and liberation.
COIN COIN Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile certainly lives up to Roberts' self-described ‘panoramic sound quilting' concept, its eighteen parts presenting themselves as scene-shifting components within a larger tapestry. And though it is admittedly a chapter within the larger project, it also works perfectly well as a stand-alone. It also brings with it a shift in character from the first release, Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres, whose musicians were drawn from Montreal's experimental scene, with the new one instead exuding a powerful New York jazz spirit in the playing of pianist Shoko Nagai, trumpeter Jason Palmer, double bassist Thomson Kneeland, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara.
The recording's free-wheeling avant-jazz sound asserts itself immediately when Roberts' Coltrane-esque lines are joined by the trumpet's bluesy moan in “Invocation,” the musicians confidently handling Roberts' material with elasticity. A heady, sometimes raucous mix of gospel, blues, and jazz, the music unfolds in a perpetual state of restless motion as it threads an uninterrupted path through its eighteen sections. Individual voices, instrumental and vocal, briefly extricate themselves from the mass before just as quickly rejoining it. Fujiwara's playing during “Amma Jerusalem School” could pass for a personal homage to Elvin Jones, while echoes of Albert Ayler emerge within Roberts' exultant wail during the bluesy “Responsory.” She also indulges in hallucinatory sing-speak in “Was the Sacred Day,” some of its text derived from an interview she did with her Mississippi grandmother, and in memorable call-and-response during the dirge-like moan of “Woman Red Racked” (one of three pieces whose arrangements are based on traditional American folk songs). Though on paper it sounds like a splendid idea, the one thing that doesn't work as well is Jeremiah Abiah's operatic tenor. The pairing of his singing and the jazz style of the music is so incongruous it proves to be jarring. If an argument can be made in support of his presence it's that his voice does act as an effective foil to Roberts' singing and wordspeak.
No slouch as an alto saxophonist, Roberts has played with a staggering array of modern figures, among them Myra Melford, Roscoe Mitchell, George Lewis, Pauline Oliveros, Anthony Braxton, and Merce Cunningham. She's also credited with conduction on the release, a word that calls to mind Butch Morris. Like him, Roberts approaches the realization of her work as would a ringleader, as an organizing center preventing the intense activity happening around her from splintering into chaos. But the connection shouldn't be pushed too far: Roberts' material is through-composed, even if it can sound in certain moments like the product of free improvisation. That it does so can be attributed to musicians whose bluster makes her celebratory charts sound spontaneous and alive. Here's looking forward to chapter three.