Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee.
(Constellation Records. CD review by Jon Turney)
One of the consistently wonderful things about the AACM –Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians – is how many players schooled in that milieu over five decades have mastered jazz forms and styles, then moved on to their own, distinct, paths.
The latest to do that is Matana Roberts, who first came to wider notice as a virtuoso improvising alto-saxophonist (her Live in London CD from 2011 captures a fine set from that time). Since then, her energy has gone into Coin Coin, a projected 12-part series inspired by a freed slave, her given name Marie Thérèse Metoyer, who founded a community in Louisiana in the late 18th century. The first two Coin Coin episodes were an ambitious large ensemble work and a theatrically imaginative song cycle for jazzy sextet. Chapter Three is different – very different.
River Run Thee is a seamless audio collage, assembled from field recordings Roberts made during a three week trip through the American deep South, with voices in conversation, recitation, snatches of song and poetry, birdsong, all overlaid with synth drones, and intermittent saxophone commentary. The whole thing was assembled by Roberts in the studio, and is immersive and impressionistic rather than keying into a clear narrative. In its fragmentary, overlapping way, it builds into an aural palimpsest that conveys a singular vision, invoking ghosts, summoning the ancestors. They are not heard clearly enough to speak of testifying, but as they talk across one another, and with the more abstract sounds, the pervading air of mystery and melancholy deepens. Are those funereal cries or field hollers? Is that plaintive opening incantation – “sadness grows as years go by”; “oh why do we try so hard?” – something overheard or addressed to us directly? Do the snatches of rapid-fire talk and almost heard phrases echo the clear vocal statements or contradict them?
If this ambitious piece needs a label, I propose reviving one used long ago by Carla Bley to describe her work with the enigmatic librettist Paul Haynes on Escalator over the Hill – a chronotransduction. Lets say that means a blending of events, real or otherwise, in a soundscape that evokes many different senses of time, and timelessness. The thought came because Roberts’ new work reminded me of some of the more adventurous vocal moments on Escalator, although that long work has many more conventionally scored passages than you will find here.
Not jazz, then, but emerging from jazz and new music in a way that will beguile some and baffle others. The alto sax is eloquent, but well down in the mix, in which no one element dominates. In my reading, this is a historical commentary that is also a reflection on the nature of the history. Recovered voices from this time, this landscape, are not heard clearly – we have to construct some kind of sense from what we can discern of a confused and confusing past in which these people rarely got to speak. Roberts is attempting that for herself, but leaves much of the work intentionally unfinished. If there is a story here, it is one you will supply. Closed eyes and headphones will help. It may change each time you listen.