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Matana Roberts in Alphabet City

The StoneMatana Roberts was reminiscing about the first time she played with the great bassist Henry Grimes. It was during the New York blackout of 2004, when she was scheduled to appear at the Jazz Gallery with a group including Grimes and the pianist Vijay Iyer. She had been travelling on the L train from her home in Queens, and it had  just emerged from the tunnel under the East River when all power vanished across the length and breadth of the city.

The passengers were allowed to get out and clamber up to the surface, and she set off to cross Manhattan to the club, which in those days had its home on the west side. She got there to discover that she and Grimes were the only members of the band who had made it to Hudson Street. In response to the situation, they played duets for stranded workers. Afterwards she walked all the way back to Queens. “I would never wear heels again,” she said. “You never know when you might have to walk home.”

She told the story on Sunday, the last night of the season she was curating at the Stone, John Zorn’s bare-bones performance space in Alphabet City, on the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street (seen in the photograph above). Twice nightly for six days, with a different line-up for each show, she invited groups varying in size from three to six members to improvise together for an hour or so. I made it to four of the shows, and some of the musicians I missed included the pianists Myra Melford and Jason Moran, the flautist Nicole Mitchell, the cellist Tomeka Reid, the trumpeter Peter Evans and the guitarist Liberty Ellman.

The first show I caught featured Roberts with Iyer and the koto player Miya Masaoka, creating three-part inventions of great delicacy and intricacy, the set culminating in a short piece in which they discovered a swelling, hymn-like lyricism. The following night I was impressed by the contributions of the trumpeters Nate Wooley, in the first set, and Forbes Graham, in the second.

Roberts was at pains to explain how important this season, first proposed two years ago, was to her. I suspect that the penultimate set, the one that featured a quartet including Grimes, the guitarist Kyp Malone and the drummer Mike Pride, offered particular satisfaction. Malone, she said, was one of the first people she played with after she arrived in New York. Pride had pointed her towards the paid work that kept her going. “And Mr Grimes,” she added, “has been an inspiration for ever.”

With Pride using bells and gongs as well as his regular kit and Malone flicking out fast-moving note clusters while Roberts deployed her throaty tone in a series of powerful incantations, the blend of textures and the rapt mood of the opening passages reminded me that Grimes had been a participant on Pharaoh Sanders’ Tauhid, a favourite (and nowadays somewhat under appreciated) album from 1966. But then the players stepped up their intensity, Roberts responding with passionate cries recalling Albert Ayler. It was a wonderful performance, full of wisdom and empathy, with Grimes — who turned 80 in November — a marvel throughout.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I think very highly of Matana Roberts (I wrote about her last year here and here). At the Stone she led off every performance that I saw with great energy, and listened to her colleagues with the same intensity with which she played. She could be proud of the whole mini-season, but of that hour on Sunday in particular.

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