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SPIN Essentials

Matana Roberts Weaves Stunning Avant-Jazz Tapestry on ‘Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile’

Matana Roberts / Photo by Matthew Eisman/Getty Images
SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: October 01, 2013
Label: Constellation

To recap: In 2011, Constellation Records, an indie-leaning label best known for its association with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, released the first chapter of saxophonist-composer Matana Roberts’ 12-volume avant-jazz Coin Coin project, in which her family’s story will be recounted alongside an exploration of recent American history. The ensembles and instrumentation can change from chapter to chapter, though the weaving of history — Roberts uses the metaphor of “panoramic sound quilting” — is the through-line.

But when it comes to Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile, don’t let the obvious ambition (or the “Chapter Two”) throw you. The way Roberts mixes experimentalism with song-form — and with post-rock prepared guitar (on the first volume) or operatic vocals (on this edition) —makes for that rare balance of “accessible” and “innovative.” So it’s still easy enough, here in the early going, to get on board.

While this 18-track suite allows for plenty of improvisation, it’s also a composed program — set aside 48 minutes to let it do its thing. Yet some instrumental excerpts give a sense of the whole: A movement like “Responsory” may open with operatic singing and ensemble avant-playing, then dig into some low-down blues, before concluding with the vocalist gently tending to a scatted hook.

Roberts says she chose an operatic tenor (Jeremiah Abiah) for this chapter as a tribute to her family’s habit of taking her to the opera when she was a young girl. (And the quick move between supposedly “high” and “low” musical forms is a clear challenge to assumed culture norms.) Elsewhere, quotations and reworkings of familiar tunes extend a folk feel even to the more abstract sections.

In narrative terms, this second chapter in the series gives us a sense of Roberts’ larger canvas, and where she wants to take us. Whereas its predecessor reanimated the symbolic ghost of “Coin Coin” — an 18th-century freed female slave whose connection to Roberts’ own family history was slightly mysterious — Chapter Two is rooted in interviews the saxophonist conducted with her own grandmother.

Roberts’ questions go unheard. Instead, she voices the elder woman’s memories, starting on the ninth track, “Amma Jerusalem School.” The running monologue provides a trove of fine scene-setting detail throughout the rest of the suite (“We used rainwater for everything”; “Didn’t have electric, but we didn’t need it”). Pointedly, the grandmother’s experience is not forced into service as a mere stand-in for period-appropriate racial injustice: “There are some things I just can’t tell you” is one oft-repeated refrain, suggesting necessary privacy protections and elisions.

Elsewhere, on “Thanks Be You,” the grandmother figure reveals that she didn’t see much direct abuse from whites in the 1960s, due to a fully segregated reality: “No honey, it didn’t affect me… I was gone by the time all that stuff started happening in Mississippi… didn’t see it on TV… I never even saw any white people… those white folk weren’t bothering us.” Perhaps this is why, on “Was the Sacred Day,” Roberts sees fit to include, in her talk-singing vocal part, a block-quote from Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who famously testified about the fearsome impediments that African-Americans faced when trying to register in 1964:

And I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss Ivesta Simpson. After I was placed in the cell, I began to hear sounds of licks and screams. And I could hear the sounds of licks and horrible screams. And I could hear somebody say, “Can you say, ‘Yes, sir,’ nigger? Can you say ‘Yes, sir’?” And they would say other horrible names.

And she would say, “Yes, I can say, ‘Yes, sir.'”

And he said, “So, well, say it.”

And she said, “Well, I don’t know you well enough.”

And they beat her….

After voicing this testimony into her music, Roberts then pivots to a quick musical quote from “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” There’s no hint that the point-of-view has been changing; Roberts doesn’t lend any extra grave portent to Hamer’s speech, which is allowed to stand without embellishment. This makes for “panoramic sound quilting” of a particularly rewarding variety: It’s a rare fabric that can at once represent individual histories in all their odd particularity, and also make reference to the collective experience.

Textual editing that supports this many readings has a literary value all its own, but on Mississippi Moonchile, that’s just one level of the craft on offer. To address the musical values, Roberts employs an ace group drawn from New York’s contemporary jazz scene. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara drives swinging sections and free-ish interludes with a feel for the need to keep things moving; Jason Palmer’s trumpet offers tart exploratory asides, and also thrives in the folk-form changes — making a fitting complement to Roberts’ stylistic range on the saxophone.

During “Woman Red Racked,” she sings a version of the Alan Lomax-recorded traditional song “Black Woman”; the album finale is a riff on the hymn “In the Garden.” A program of music this varied would be welcome in any season, though it feels perfectly timed for 2013 — keeping, as it does, one eye on the Freedom Summer of 1964, and coming to us now in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act.

While it’s true that other musicians hailing from the tradition that Roberts grew up around in Chicago — Roscoe Mitchell, for example — have made recordings that blend classical vocals with out-jazz and populist textures, very few of those work as seamlessly as Mississippi Moonchile. If it’s a surprise to discover the album borrowing from soul records with more feeling than “Blurred Lines” — while also deploying its Civil Rights references with greater gravitas than “Blood on the Leaves” — remember that in the right hands, the art of quilting still feels plenty radical.