Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres

As unfortunate as it may sound, it's unusual in 2011 to have a challenging new jazz release to get excited about, but New York (via Chicago) alto saxophonist Matana Roberts has undeniably produced one.  Though she's been publicly active since the early 2000's, the first "chapter" of her ambitious planned 12-part Coin Coin series seems to have been Roberts' biggest break to date, getting her a lot of exposure in print and online.  People have already been talking about this album enough that the word "hype" is getting tossed around, which usually results in heavy skepticism and considerably less interesting conversations.  After getting to know this album I don't feel any need to declare it the "best" anything of 2011, but I do agree with the growing number of people out there that it's an uncommon album in the contemporary jazz landscape and well worth checking out.

Coin Coin Chapter One is probably best described as a conceptual piece of performance art, which covers the wide variety of musical styles it incorporates as well as the use of poetry and narrative that are central to its purpose.  The core themes of the work are memory, history and shared human experience, focusing primarily on subject matter relating to historical African Americans in slavery and positions of adversity, drawing from Roberts' own explorations of her family history and ancestry.  This subject matter is presented over and together with a diverse backdrop of different jazz styles, including avant-garde jazz, free jazz, dixieland, blues, and more.  While I think it's a valid point that the subject of the African American slavery is arguably not immediately relevant to most people's present-day lives and that it can be "too easy" of a choice (for obvious reasons relating to the horrors that countless African Americans have experienced throughout history) when it comes to eliciting a strong emotional response, I think these objections are a little too dualistic.  When confronted with Roberts' vision, it's clear that her exploration of the historical black American experience remains a living, vital part of her (and I'm sure innumerable others') identity, and the authenticity and emotion of her presentation soon dispels any attempt at dismissing the subject matter as purely contrived.

The most powerful pieces on Coin Coin Chapter One are undoubtedly those that feature Roberts' voice either singing or reciting spoken word.  In the Coin Coin world, Coin Coin is a sort of "every person" spirit who repeatedly appears in different people's lives across history, reinforcing the concept of shared experience that seems central to Roberts' project.  In "Pov Piti," "Kersaia" and "I Am," Roberts introduces Coin Coin's different manifestations with anguished cries, powerfully conveying the spirit's rebirth through another African American's existence.  Each song continues, describing each character's experience through Roberts' spoken word.  It's hard not to admit that these pieces are crushingly compelling in their emotional message, as Roberts' lilting spoken word describes episodes of yellow fever, slave rape, and redemption through freedom and the jaw-dropping concept of buying back children who were taken and sold as slaves.  I really love her poetic delivery; the meter is flowing, organic, and wholly reminiscent of instrumental improvisation--she stops, starts and repeats lines as if she's blowing a horn, imbuing the words with rhythm and often downplaying the force of the ideas, casually dropping blood-freezing lines like "I have seen so much but yet have experienced less than most dogs" and "I am twenty-five; there will never be any pictures of me."  Her lyrical concerns also come to fruition through sung vocals, as on the bitterly sarcastic auction block vocal blues parody "Libation for Mr. Brown: Bid 'Em In," and more contemporarily on the dedication "How Much Would You Cost?"

Musically, Roberts' vision is as sweeping and all-inclusive of African American history as her narrative is, drawing together a smattering of all of the historical jazz developments imaginable and weaving them together into a smoothly-flowing collage.  The opener, "Rise" recalls Coltrane's A Love Supreme in both title and its incantatory feeling, though its cacophony eventually marries modern electric instrumentation with more of a Pharoah Sanders-like free jazz sound.  The mercurial, progressively shifting main theme that introduces the album's spoken word pieces possesses the album's most memorable instrumental melody, effectively aurally tying the recurring themes together, and including a vocal arrangement that recalls 40's film scores.  "Song for Eulalie" blends ominous piano riffing with some nice free duet playing between Roberts (whose alto saxophone tone variously recalls both Coltrane and Sanders as well as the keening gospel sounds of Albert Ayler), while the album closing waltz ends on an uplifting note with the disc's most unassuming and most compelling vocal melody.

Though there are numerous brief kernels of vibrant and effective composition, I think one of Coin Coin Chapter One's weakest aspects is that it often plays like an all-inclusive pastiche; its eclecticism is only occasionally displayed in fully-formed songs and more often occurs willy-nilly across songs that seem to have little in the way of structure.  While the mood and playing of "Rise," for example, display a slight modern twist on free jazz, the track presents little in the way of recognizable melody or memorable elements.  Consequently, when the album ends the actual compositional elements seem rather slight and repetitive--the repeating theme, a couple of traditional songs, and a whole lot of episodic genre sampling spanning over 60 minutes, with a number of ideas taking up a bit more time than they probably justify.  Since Roberts has already announced that Coin Coin will be a 12-part series, it's hard not to start wondering if the musical approach will be the same for the entire work, which I fear could result in some artistic stagnation.  Though, as far as I know, this album is strikingly original in the jazz world (the closest thing I'm aware of is Max Roach's We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite), it's arguably only original in its performance art/narrative approach and wide-reaching inclusion of different styles.  Without Roberts' concept, words and voice, I think the music would come off as a bit unremarkable and unfocused in its scope.  I sympathize with Roberts' ambitions, since creating something simultaneously eclectic, developed, and original requires a sort of unidentifiable magic touch.  I hope that later installments in the series retain her obvious passion with a stronger focus on composition and hopefully her emergence as a truly original musical voice, neither of which I think have happened quite yet on this release.  Either way, I'll be first in line to pick up chapter two whenever it's released, and I hope those jazz artists listening to Matana Roberts achieve a little bit of inspiration to stretch past the hard bop regurgitation that so much contemporary jazz seems to cling to.  Whether or not it "lives up to the hype" (probably the most boring discussion imaginable when confronted with an album like this), I think Coin Coin Chapter One is unarguably an uncommon work and worthy of the interest it's received.

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