Matana Roberts thinks big, encouraging us to do the same. After emerging a few years ago as an uncommonly talented young alto saxophonist, composer and bandleader, at a time when she was a member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, she is now a quarter of the way through a sequence of 12 albums under the series title Coin Coin (the nickname of Marie Thérèse Metoyer, a freed slave who founded a colony in 18th century Louisiana).
The first volume, Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres, appeared in 2011; the second, Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile, in 2013; the third, Chapter Three: River Run Thee, is just out. At her present rate of production, if my arithmetic is correct, she will complete the cycle in 2033, at which point those who are still around will be able to enjoy a vast, impressionistic and many-dimensioned view of the history of African Americans, seen through one artist’s eyes.
Roberts calls what she does “panoramic soundquilting”: a particularly appropriate description given the development of quilt-making into an American folk art, beginning with the earliest settlers. What her use of the term conveys is a willingness to use techniques of collage and superimposition to create layers of texture and meaning.
Although Roberts is now based in New York, all three albums were recorded at the Hotel2Tango studio in Montreal. Each takes a quite distinct approach. Gens de Couleurs Libre juxtaposed her arrangements for a 16-piece ensemble with songs and readings from diverse sources, with an extended and disturbingly nonchalant depiction of a slave auction as its centrepiece. Mississippi Moonchile found the instrumental resources pared down to a conventional post-Coleman quintet, featuring Roberts’ alto and the trumpet of the excellent Jason Palmer — with the occasional intrusion of Jeremiah Abiah’s operatic tenor providing a provocative contrast.
River Run Thee continues the process of reduction, and is a more demanding experience. Unlike its predecessors, it cannot be listened to as an album of relatively straightforward contemporary jazz, with horns and rhythm sections and riffs and improvisations based on the thematic material. Essentially a solo album featuring Roberts’s voice, alto, synthesiser and piano, it resembles not so much a quilt as one of Gerhard Richter’s abstract works, in which the painter partially scrapes through his own layers of paint to reveal disarticulated fragments of colour and pattern. The 12 movements of this chapter of Roberts’s giant work are indistinctly defined: whooshes and surges of electronic noise part to expose found sounds and voices recorded during a recent trip to the South, shards of free-floating saxophone improvisation and fragments of “The Star Spangled Banner”, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, “All the Pretty Horses” and other pieces from America’s collective memory.
As a child, Roberts’s imagination was fired when her grandfather, a Louisiana man, told her about Marie Thérèse Metoyer; now the South, and particularly the experience of slavery, forms the primed canvas for the whole work to date. Literal meaning, however, is not on offer. She seems to be excavating America’s memory in search of the elements, some of them far distant in time, that shaped her own life, using notes and words but intending to convey something beyond them, something they cannot express. The richness of her gathered material is what makes Coin Coin such a fascinating project, one whose future chapters and ultimate resolution are likely to be awaited with great anticipation for many years to come.
* The painting/collage is by Matana Roberts and forms a part of the cover of Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee, released by the Constellation label.