Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter 3: River Run Thee (Constellation, 2015) *****Martin Schray
For those who haven’t heard of Matana Roberts‘ Coin Coin project before: It’s a 12-album- project about the exploration of black history reaching back from the horrors of slavery to African-American emancipation and the civil rights struggle. On the first album, Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres, Roberts put her ideas into practice with the help of a complete jazz orchestra, then she reduced the band to a smaller ensemble of six for Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile. Now, in chapter three, subtitled River Run Thee, Roberts is there all alone – on alto saxophone, electronics, wordspeak (as she calls it), and piano.
Some people looked skeptically when they got to know that Roberts was to include electronics in her new chapter. And River Run Thee, which consists of twelve tracks, is indeed a huge drone, a monstrous sonic adventure, constructed of loops and multiple layers of field recordings from a journey she undertook through the South last year, as well as samples from Malcom X’s “Confronting White Oppression” speech (Detroit,1965), passages of Captain G.L. Sullivan’s “Dhow Chasing in Zanzibar Waters” (1873), fragments of the “Star Spangled Banner”, Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer”, the Mississippi State Senate’s “Pledge of Allegiance”, Samuel Francis
Smith “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing“.
But the album is also a weaving together of saxophone improvisations, Roberts’ touching vocals, accounts of the slave trade and her grandfather’s poetry – a method she has described as “panoramic sound quilting”. Roberts recites and sings this poetry in the first track “All is Written”. She proclaims the geographic place and the emotional conditions (“The South – your sadness grows as years roll by”) and repeatedly laments “Oh why do we try so hard / all is written in the cards“. It’s an essential question, asked in deep despair. But she also has an answer: “Because we should”.
Apart from the electronic rubble under which everything seems to be buried, the even more dominant characteristics are Roberts’ voice, which presents her as the great woman of sorrows in contemporary music and her lonely saxophone in the background, endlessly melancholic, a distant and warning element. These elements are sometimes surrounded by birds twittering and the cries of babies, which only intensify the almost unbearable pain.
River Run Thee is a journey through the past presented as a huge collage. However, it is much more than just a catalogue of evil. It is a chronicle of black daily life in these days, it makes you think about human relations, about brutality, subordination and desolation but also about moral courage and hope.
We are only at the beginning of 2015, I am sure there will be lots of excellent albums. But with the third part of Roberts’ Coin Coin cycle we already have a contender for the best album of the year.
It’s still the most fascinating project in jazz – maybe in art in general.
Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter 3: River Run Thee (Constellation, 2015) ****½
I don’t want to cover a lot of the same ground as Martin Schray’s masterful review of this record but if any new 2015 release deserves more coverage and two perspectives this is it.
I first heard about NYC-based saxophonist/sound sculptor Matana Roberts from a Village Voice “Ten Free Jazz Albums You Must Hear Before You Die” piece where it listed her Coin Coin Vol. 1 as the #1 album amongst the offerings. Since she was in company such as Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton, two heroes of mine, I skeptically said to myself, “It can’t possibly be that good” and it wasn’t frankly when I finally got my hands on it but it was damn good. Good enough to continue purchasing her next two albums.
Coin Coin Chapter 3: River Run Thee may be my favorite so far. Certainly a 12 album song cycle may sound overly ambitious but my appreciation of her work and the essence of the struggles of black Americans from Slavery through the Civil Rights era to today become more crystallized with each of the last two offerings. Could it be the smaller ensembles? Not sure, but I do know that the soundscapes employed on Chapter 3 are more jarring, haunting and achingly poignant than the first two and indeed this latest installment plays much more as a solo effort and thus more immediate. Some may find the drones and sputtering off-putting but I hear them more as the manifestation of pain and suffering and the sound you hear in your head when thoughts and modernism collide. When you can’t turn it off and simply go to sleep, which we shouldn’t, and can’t. It’s constantly there, ringing in our ears, won’t go away and demands attention. It brings the past into the present. Calling us home or sending us away.
It’s the same with her spoken words and singing. The original lyrics are superb and her combining of field recordings and snippets and fragments of well-worn traditional and classic historical tunes are extremely well-placed and artfully chosen. This is enchanting, disturbing and very evocative stuff. Like awaking from a nightmare and knowing not all of it is real but some of it may be and is still with you. This album will be with you long after you stopped listening. I eagerly anticipate the coming chapters.
Coin Coin Chapter 3: River Run Thee is available on 180g vinyl, CD and as a download.
You can buy it from the label.
Listen to parts of the album here: