It would be unreasonable to suggest that Matana Roberts’ sound stems directly from a concrete musical tradition or that her aesthetic conjures images of a smoke-filled room punctuated by some entertainer’s sax ambiance. Despite demonstrating a frustration with jazz — as well as a passion for it — her methods resist invoking a movement or a fixed guiding statement about her artistic direction. Instead, the COIN COIN series approaches a broader set of principles, an enthusiasm that spans across culture, religion, and geography. Ideas of jazz are manipulated in the guise of something much larger than any sub-genre spawning from it; Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile, for example, carefully examines the human condition and personal interaction while pulling on familiar aesthetics and severing itself from any stereotypes lurking in the undergrowth. Roberts’ work runs deep, not only in the presentation of her music and research, but also through the personalities, the hearts and the souls of every musician she performs with. This is no easy fix, more of an unsettling triumph; playing the cold and the hard out with the heated and the free — the album is a burning force that stops you in your tracks, imploring you to pay attention and to ponder the experience as it seeps beneath your skin.
The musicians’ exploration of stylistic themes immediately causes that stunned reaction, a preferential riptide of base-level indicators as a response to the fusion of staggered opera and alto saxophone. Not only do such styles clash and pounce between each other, but they also mark the brilliant range that’s captured by Jeremiah Abiah’s operatic tenor, as his voice dances alongside Roberts’ improvisations. Some of the deeper facets of the album are introduced in this way, but it’s important that they are first identified on the surface, for one is forced to reconcile any instinctual reactions before addressing lyrical content. Although they bear equal potency, the aesthetic components are abrupt enough to ignite a recoil, an instance of what might be referred to as “challenging music” pieced together by some of New York’s most talented improvisors working under the intricate prescription of Roberts’ graphic scores.
By creating a representative visual image of her angle, Roberts allows for an unlimited number of interpretations and possibilities. Her graphic scores have their own narrative, and even though the Chicago-born artist is classically trained, they generally go against the grain of western compositional notation. The scores are collages that range in style, content, and design — they are explorations of the artist’s potential and a demonstration of order that she finds existing alongside displacement and chaos. In the case of COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres, these included photographs from the turn of the century combined with drawings, symbols, and embellishment, all of which have been mirrored on this latest work, although the resulting music leaves behind the spacious abandon that dissolved into previous tracks such as “kersalia” and “song for eulalie.”
COIN COIN encompasses 12 chapters in total. Each one has its own path carved out by a mental sculpture, which exhibits the imaginative road map behind every piece. Collage provides a framework for contrasts that exist within, not only between notions of opera, jazz, punk, and improv, but also in terms of lyrical content and word association. Roberts demonstrates an amazing gift in reflecting both jubilation and tragedy through harrowing tales and ad hoc interjections that encompass the building blocks of a rambunctious atmosphere. This is best represented in a line she takes from an interview with her grandmother: Imagine talking to a relative about their past, about growing up in an alien zeitgeist, and having that person repeatedly say “there are some things I just can’t tell you about, honey.” It’s a phrase that’s revisited time and time again in a number of conflicting circumstances, and yet there is a friendliness, a closeness, a playful joy in the word “honey” that shatters the context in which it is being uttered — stories unrewarded toil, of family members who have passed on, and of grim segregation that illustrates each narrative like a bullet through a glass pane.
But the intention is not to inspire any negative gaze; each song is an arrangement of findings, facts, and anecdotes that steered history in a certain direction. It’s our contemporary lens that makes the contrast so vivid. Indeed, these shades are brought out in methods of improvisation and the tools used to accomplish it: a bible patched with fragments from family interviews, traditional American folk songs, and speeches by Fannie Lou Hamer all make for an enchanting juxtaposition in Roberts’ “wordspeak.” Her method reaches across generations and binds them cheek by jowl through sound, while signifiers such as the bible — which represented an essential component of daily life within the album’s subjects — are subverted here as a means for transcending that bold leap between specific social constructs. The most pungent story comes from Hamer’s 1964 Indianola speech, which describes Anelle Ponder being beaten in a police cell — “Can’t you say ‘yes, sir,’ nigger; can’t you say ‘yes, sir?’” — but the section is rounded by another of Roberts’ impromptu quotes, which she bellows with gusto: “I sing because I’m happy I sing because I’m free” — the sax picks up and the band storm into a beautiful concordance, which is at once stomach-churning and gracious. It’s a powerful, well-timed listening experience that ignites a distinct response by means of improvised unison, disclosing the deepest depictions of love, fear, exhilaration, and sorrow in a grand testament to the artists’ collective ambition.
Such disparities are amplified by a framework Roberts refers to as panoramic sound quilting. During playback, each number is spun together to reveal a flowing tapestry, a stitching that grounds the otherwise unplanned fabric of lyrical and musical presentation on the basis of the score. “all nations” is the strongest example of how the quilting works aesthetically — the song only lasts for seven seconds, and it sounds completely mad when separated from its environment. Abiah launches into an operatic peak while Shako Nagai’s frantic piano keys propel the piece, which constitutes a snippet of continual motion that’s given its own dimension for the purposes of the score. Displacing the tracks from their surroundings can yield surprising results, particularly on a section such as “woman red racked,” which could almost encompass a single in its harmonic version of “Black Woman” that’s capped with a short, horn-infused bridge. “amma jerusalem school” is the first song where Roberts’ vocals take center stage while providing an induction as to the melding of lyrical content — it allows for an essential standalone track, but that sense of induced cohesion is what makes the record so breathtaking as a whole.
As “humility draws down new” flows into a hushed rendition of the hymn “He Walks With Me (In The Garden),” Roberts’ vocal patters out with a whisper as she concludes her duet with Abiah — whose range is so adroit that he suits any of the given moods his collaborators chose to explore — and the album ends on a singular, quieted tone. It’s a final display of how spectacularly Mississippi Moonchile is arranged — as a chapter that’s hinged on improvisation, free forms, and graphic scores, the music is exceptionally balanced and paced. Although it comes riddled with contrasting themes and ideas, there is an unparalleled degree of cohesion in the work that allows each juxtaposition to take on its own manifestation, as though they have been pieced together like a jigsaw assembled from numerous boxes that somehow fit together to create a striking tableaux. Once the various styles and compositional tactics have been negotiated, one can appreciate the manner in which they mirror the vocal content — its an incredible realization of how arresting the music can feel as a depiction of times past while cementing Roberts’ reputation as a fascinating composer and an incomparable voice of the age.