Album reviews

Matana Roberts – ‘Coin Coin Chapter Five: In The Garden’

Matana Roberts Coin Coin Chapter Five: In The Garden
(Constellation CST170. Album review by Jon Turney)

So we reach the fifth instalment, of a projected 12, of saxophonist and sound artist Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin project. One day, still some way off, we’ll look back on the entire opus as both magisterial and monumental. For now, though, it seems best to take each one on its (considerable) merits, especially as Chapter Five appears after a four year interval.

As usual, it is a distinctive instrumental and vocal sound collage building a picture of an aspect of the lives of people of colour in the US. This time the focus is on a woman in Roberts’ family who died 100 years ago after trying to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, the contemporary relevance painfully obvious.

And yes, there is pain in the cinematic soundscape Roberts builds up meticulously over 16 connected episodes, but also a tapestry of feeling that anatomises and celebrates a turbulent life before its untimely end.

The accumulation of this remarkable series does begin to invite comparisons, and the realisation of this latest marvel of musical story-telling is recognisably akin to its immediate predecessor rather than, say, the assembly of solo saxophone, voice, and field recordings achieved by Roberts alone in Chapter Three. As for Chapter four, a new band came together to work with Roberts – percussionist Ryan Sawyer is the only player to return. The others play a variety of clarinets, sax, violin, piano, percussion and (almost all of them), tin whistles, which braid together plaintively over a martial rhythm at the beginning and end of the sequence. There are purely instrumental episodes where they sound like a seasoned ensemble playing orchestrally conceived collective improvisation.

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Vocally, there are sung passages, snippets of speech that drift in and out of earshot, and repeated incantations that gather emotional force as the story moves to its grave conclusion. It feels as if there is more of Roberts’ own vocal exposition this time, the storytelling still fragmented but perhaps a little more straightforward than hitherto, and no less compelling for that. The voices are offset by layered horns, sometimes playing free, sometimes confined to simple figures, occasionally peeling off a jazz solo. Except, that is, when the composer’s intent calls for the free jazz ensemble to become an acapella choir, or a clapping chorus, which they pull off with equal aplomb.

Everyone contributes fully, but it is clear the whole effort is in the service of Roberts’ singular vision. Their roles as player, singer, speaker and organiser here seem to require some combination of bard, shaman, pied piper and mad scientist. However they do it, it works. Coin Coin grows more impressive with each new episode: it’s a privilege to be able to hear this artistic epic of remembering and forgetting unfold.

Jon Turney writes about jazz, and other things, from Bristol. Twitter @jonwturney

LINK: Coin Coin on Bandcamp
and at Constellation Records / Release date (today) 29 September 2023
LJN review archive for Matana Roberts

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