Matana Roberts (alto sax, clarinet & vocals), Joy Guidry (bassoon & vocals), Hannah Marcus (fiddle, accordion, guitar & vocals), Nic Caloia (bass & vocals), Sam Shalabi (guitar, oud & vocals) and Ryan Sawyer (drums, vibraphone, jaw harps & vocals)
(Milton Court. 17 November 2022. Live review by Jon Turney)
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A masked Matana Roberts glided slowly onstage to join her band, balancing a long-quilled feather on her open palm: the gesture underlined what most already knew, that she is not like anyone else.
The latest instalment of her monumental-work-in-the-making, Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis, from 2019, of course contains many familiar elements. There is Chicago school free alto sax and clarinet from the composer, her own rich vocalising, now soulful, now operatic, insistent percussion, episodes centred on blues, spirituals, and hoe-down, atmospherically incantatory spoken text and, in this Chapter, varied orchestral texture. But, as ever, she uses them to create a unique sound collage, in the service of a single piece of story-telling recovered from the hidden history of the USA.
That narrative, a quality perhaps lacking in warm-up Jasper Marsalis’s disorientingly herky-jerky mash-up of popular song forms, binds an episodic suite conceived as a single work. It focuses on a Klu Klux Klan assault in which a small girl loses her parents, and Roberts reflects and refracts the episode on record in ways that convey searing emotional heat.
Live, with a six-piece band, the effect is if anything still more intense. The stage offering follows the studio version closely – although free music signatures abound this is a tightly organised work, cued by eloquent hand gestures from the composer. The touring band includes key personnel from the record, too, although the marvellous Joy Guidry’s bassoon joins in place of Steve Sewell’s trombone. All are superb, but hard not to single out Ryan Sawyer on percussion, who also contributes on voice, jaw harps and vibes.
It is unmistakeably Roberts’ conception, but the realisation is fully collective, never more so than on the acappella vocal rendering of her version of the ur-spiritual/sea shanty “Roll The Old Chariot Along”. It projects great power and, live, the effect is almost unbearably poignant. Just one of many moments in this transfixing work but one that, like the whole thing, stays in the mind long after the performance is over. This was music of anger and pain, sadness and regret and, ultimately hope and a kind of grace: Utterly memorable and really rather remarkable.