Monday, August 1, 2011
Recent Recordings from Matana Roberts
Coin Coin Chapter One: Les Gens de Coleur Lebres
Live in London
by Kurt Gottschalk
Although she’s been working the project live for several years already, Les Gens de Coleur Lebres is the first part of Matana Roberts’ epic Coin Coin project to make it to record. The series of suites (too big to call a single work) is in 12 parts — or “chapters,” as she tags them — each a musical portrait of someone in her family history.
Chapter One, released on the Canadian label Constellation, is a smart and harrowing telling of one of the ugliest chapters in America’s own history, and perhaps more importantly of the people who survived it. The literal part of the story doesn’t come in straightaway. Roberts stretches her Montreal 12tet first, pushing them between loose jazzy themes and (more) open improvisations for the first seven minutes before introducing the first vocal piece, “Por Piti,” which confronts the listener with a harrowing pain before the scene has even been set. It then retreats into a series of mid-Coltrane-reminiscent lines before folding in a complementary vocal part by singer Gitu Jain and then the first recitation, a quick litany of the horrors seen by the protagonist, born into slavery.
Roberts has a good sense for structuring composition and improvisation into movements and guiding her bands through them, making for another sort of storytelling. The subject of slavery is certainly tough material either to write or to recite, and Roberts’ delivery comes off as a bit dated — not 1840s but 1970s. There’s a black feminist theater vibe at play in the Ntozake Shange-styled oration which could be a distraction if everything else weren’t so well done. The spoken passage is brief and is immediately swallowed up by a quick horn frenzy followed by an antebellum string lament then a taut, repeated line which proves to be the unexpected foundation of a brass band theme, oddly coupled with hard electric guitar.
The work solidifies as the ensemble moves through the gorgeous and thoughtful “Song for Eulalie” and then “Kersalia,” which includes a more successful orchestrated recitation before pulling some more near-New Orleans jazz. These are followed by the album’s masterstroke. “Libation for Mr. Brown: Bid em in...” is a clever and catchy song about a slave auction, preying on the feeling of an active, enjoyable afternoon almost to the point of deception: Sung from the point of view of the auctioneer, the sale of human beings is accompanied by the warmth of a sunny day. It’s brilliantly sing-song and plaintive, the simple melody inducing a very real fright.
Roberts doesn’t use the text to tell the whole story and the project seems to demand a box set (or flash drive, at least) release with notes telling the literal story that only comes through in glimmers in the musical telling. At the same time, however, what Coin Coin might be about is not the stories themselves but simply the fact that they exist, that they haven’t been forgotten, that Roberts has access to them as a source for inspiration. In July, Roberts premiered the sixth chapter of Coin Coin at the Jazz Gallery in New York City, this section based on 139 pieces her great grandfather using the Bible as a source for musical inspiration at the same time while at the same time teaching himself to read. Like “Papa Joe,” Roberts has a grand storyline to chart through music. Not quite a jazz opera, not quite musical theater, Roberts is crafting a new and personal form of narrative.
Live in London is a more conventional jazz outing, recorded at the Vortex by BBC radio with a crackerjack British rhythm section. They open with a 27-minute take on “My Sistr,” a song written by the Canadian singer Frankie Sparo, who also records on Constellation. Roberts’ “Pieces of We” is followed by an exciting piece called “Glass” then “Turn it Around,” a Carribean-tinged bop that morphs into a meditation in its six quick minutes. The album’s final act is dominated by a wonderfully faithful-and-free version of Duke Ellington’s “Oska T” before closing with the gentle outro “Exchange.” It’s a solid jazz record, perhaps not as important but at the same time nicely free of the intensity of Les Gens de Coleur Lebres.
Over the last decade, Roberts has made her presence known among those in the know in Chicago, New York and Montreal, and while these aren’t her first releases they still feel like an arrival for an artist who’s well worth continued watching.