Run, baby, run — run like the wind.
That phrase is a recurring motif of Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis, the latest instalment of Matana Roberts’ meditation on personal history and cultural memory. The words are those of “Daddy”, and they appear in various contexts, from schoolyard races to a sighting of men in strange robes and hoods.
The emotional loading of that phrase and the image of a black child running, whether out of pleasure or terror, is at the centre of Roberts’s latest piece of “panoramic sound quilting.” Each chapter so far (she plans an eventual total of 12) has had a different trajectory and texture, and this is no exception.
The narrative core is drawn from the story, told to Roberts by her maternal grandmother, of a Memphis woman named Liddie — “who for moment of a long lifetime ago, lived in a Tennessee wood, alone, a small person yet ungrown/unknown… her father murdered by weak men in white hoods, her mother dying somewhere unknown… alone…”
Roberts is a beautiful reader and narrator, as anyone who has attended her solo concerts will know. Her strong, alert voice rises naturally out of the music and can render sombre material powerful but never portentous or hectoring. Here she devises settings that fall somewhere between the black country brass and string bands of the early 20th century — braying trombone, rollicking fiddle, wheezing accordion, twanging jaw harp — and the free jazz of the 1960s. There’s an Aylerish exultation to the use of traditional cadences, most obviously in the flights of Roberts’ own alto playing and the scrabbling, plicketing electric guitars of Hannah Marcus and Sam Shalabi. (The bassist Nicolas Caloia and the drummer/vibraphonist Ryan Sawyer are the other members of the core group.)
Snatches of folk songs and gospel hymns slip in and out of this sound-quilt, alongside hints of “St Louis Blues”, “This Little Light of Mine” and “Tennessee Waltz”. They are the ghosts of an unquiet past in a restless, troubled present, brilliantly evoked in the latest episode of this monumental work.
* The photograph is of Matana Roberts’s grandmother and is from the front cover of Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis. The album is out now on the Constellation label. I’ve made a couple of factual corrections to this piece in response to Matana Roberts’s comment.