There is a restless but disciplined effervescence in Roberts’ playing.
Kevin Le Gendre 2011
Composition and improvisation are the essential twin pillars of jazz. The first is story, the second is saga; an extension, if not reconstruction, of a sonic building. Being able to write and solo with enough ingenuity to make the original musical architecture then lean into an eye-catching new shape is the genre’s creative summit. However, something else to bear in mind is the ability to create atmospheres, moods, colours and nuance; to sometimes play around the song before it crystallizes in earnest, which is one of the reasons why pieces can stretch to 10 or more minutes.
Alto saxophonist Matana Roberts did as much on her 2008 debut The Chicago Project, a stirring tribute to her ville natale, and on this concert performance from what could be her ville d’adoption, she goes deeper into that territory, playing lengthy, absorbing arrangements that are really suites emboldened by a well-handled rise and fall of tension. Her London accompanists – drummer Chris Vatalaro, double bassist Tom Mason and pianist Robert Mitchell – prove simpatico partners in their hair-trigger responsiveness and individual flourish, but it is Roberts’ poised command that defines this 2009 session at the Vortex.
She doesn’t rush ideas into being. She often plays yearning, heraldic motifs that are steeped in blues, but she also embraces some of the eastern scalar trickery beloved of Kenny Garrett. Time and time again, there are grippingly plaintive fanfares in which Roberts’ lithe yet robust tone prods at a melodic figure while her band members endeavour to make the rhythmic accompaniment as malleable as possible. In the best cases, as in My Sistr, the result is a stream of glistening, glow worm sounds with a controlled turbulence bubbling underneath.
What is called the avant-garde has deployed such strategies since the 60s, but Roberts’ work reveals the natural bridges between that school and post-bop by sliding from liquid, rubtao passages into flighty swing with no loss of narrative thread. There is a restless but disciplined effervescence in Roberts’ playing that loosely recalls adventurous spirits like Oliver Lake, but Live In London confirms a fast-maturing individuality.