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Matana Roberts Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens De Couleur Libres Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

An ambitious work, and all of its aims have surely been fulfilled.

Martin Longley 2011

The Chicagoan alto saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts has been dwelling in NYC for most of the last decade, where she has no regular band, but plenty of ongoing collaborators. She's keen to assemble crews in other cities, in similar fashion to that of the old Can singer Damo Suzuki. Roberts has a London posse (already documented on disc), and Gens De Couleur Libres employs a 15-piece Montreal ensemble. This is the city where the Constellation label operates, and she has spent a considerable amount of time there since 2005.

A cutting alto saxophone cry opens this first chapter of Coin Coin, a Stockhausen-sized sequence of work that sets out to probe its composer's African-American ancestral lineage, travelling as far back as the 1700s. Ultimately, 12 segments are planned, so the recorded documentation is somewhat behind her composing speed, as Roberts is now at least halfway through the journey. She premieres each new chapter onstage, but this one was captured live in a Montreal recording studio, in front of an invited audience. Consequently, it's crackling with the electricity of real-time risk-taking. Even though Roberts composes, she uses graphic scores, or variable blocks of instruction, sometimes of a chance nature. It's a kind of highly controlled improvisation, for which she sets the parameters. Everything is open here, as the saxophone is joined by piano, other horns encroaching, then bass and drums. Voices begin to bleed into the substance, tones suspended, in shifting layers. It’s chamber improv, marrying new jazz and new classical in a natural fashion, not troubled by musical visas.

Towards the close of the opening Rise, Roberts begins the vocal narrative part of her performance. She’s perfected a harrowing scream-sing technique that's controlled, but just on the brink of being feral. The roots of Chicagoan jazz experimentation are showing, but the music of Max Roach, Keith Tippett's Centipede and the Liberation Music Orchestra is frequently invoked. Spiritual or political, recalling the way these large forces were gathered in the name of urgent collective expression.

Unavoidably, the subject of slavery dominates the words here, not an experience that's explored too frequently in popular (or even unpopular) song. Roberts judges the right tone, whatever the 'right' tone is, neither too deadpan nor too hysterical. There's a certain ironic flatness, broken with emotional cracks. Roberts is a light-tongued storyteller, but also an unnervingly exposed singer, as she leads the a cappella Libation for Mr. Brown. The musical terrain is fast-changing, with moods switching repeatedly. This is an ambitious work, and all of its aims have surely been fulfilled. Roberts is already an artist with multiple facets, deftly accentuated to suit each musical circumstance.

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