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Monday, October 2, 2023

Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter Five: In the Garden (Constellation, 2023)

By Martin Schray

For twelve years now, Matana Roberts has been pursuing her ambitious Coin Coin project. In twelve chapters she wants to combine art, music and theater concepts to a representation of African-American history, for which she researches the lives of seven generations of her family. That has been the plan from the beginning. The stories of the first two albums were located in Louisiana and Mississippi, the third part was rather personal, then the narrative moved to Memphis. The new album, In The Garden, is now again not assigned to any particular place. But it’s a family history again and as the previous albums it tells us a lot about the history of the United States at the same time: “The Coin Coin project is a musical monument to human experience. The root is American, but such experiences and emotions have no identity except that they are human. I focus on human emotions and experiences, but yes: it’s also a kind of musical map of the U.S,“ Roberts said in an interview.

What’s new on In The Garden is the fact that the 16 tracks don’t flow into each other; they’re clearly separated. While the previous album was more of a stream of consciousness, In The Garden is a multi-part narrative. Roberts tells the story of one of her direct ancestors (her great-great-grandmother), who died as a result of complications from an illegal abortion. From the first encounter with the father of the protagonist’s children, through the course of the toxic relationship, the gradual estrangement, the protagonist’s loneliness, her desperate attempts to regain control of her destiny, to her unfortunate death, Roberts unfolds a typical story of black women at the beginning of the 20th century. In the process, the story develops an immense dramatic and narrative force, reminiscent of the female characters of Thomas Hardy (Tess of the d'Urbervilles) or Colson Whitehead (Underground Railroad). The inevitability of the protagonist’s fate and the social circumstances that ultimately drive her to her death are heartbreaking. Then again, Roberts also builds a monument to this character, showing her as a self-confident, modern woman. Each of the story parts ends with the same words: “Well, they didn’t know I was electric, alive, spirited, fire and free. My spirits overshadowing, my dreams too bombastic, my eyes too sparkling, my laughter too true. My name is your name, our name is their name. We are named, we remember - they forget.“

What is more, the fate of the woman is reflected in the music. “We said“, the opener, starts with indistinct chatter, as if we were hearing voices from Hades. In the background, the reeds drone ominously, preparing us for the tragedy of the story - a musical moment quite reminiscent of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. What follows are narrative passages that are repeatedly mirrored or counteracted by purely instrumental pieces. On the one hand, the tracks on which Roberts speaks are underpinned by repetitive string motifs (Mazz Swift on violin), restrained drums that groove lightly (Mike Pride and Ryan Sawyer) and blues-soaked horns (e.g. in “unbeknownst“ or “a(way) is not an option“). On the other hand, the same horns (the great Darius Jones on alto sax, Stuart Bogie on bass clarinet, Matt Lavelle on alto clarinet and Roberts herself) are more prominent in the instrumental pieces. On “predestined confessions“ they wrestle, entwine, fight and vie with each other. The almost idyllic scene in “but i never heard a song so long before“(which is dominated by a lullaby), and the gospel-like “the promise“ are followed by a lament which reminds me of the great musical moments of the 1960s, of Coltrane, of Shepp, of Ayler. It becomes clear that there will be no happy ending for the protagonist. The superimposed exclamations that mark the transition to the afterlife are underlaid with wild, screeching saxophone notes. For the finale, we are back to the beginning: brass band sounds, returning home from the cemetery after the burial in the tradition of a jazz funeral, only that this band consists of the little instruments of the Art Ensemble.

It is obvious to see the topic of this album as applied to the social reality in the U.S. today, as a commentary on the recent Supreme Court decision on Roe vs Wade. In an accompanying text, Roberts opposes the criminalization of abortion and displays the consequences, especially for black women. She attacks the restrictive abortion policies of ultra right-wing forces, whose child protection argument she exposes as hypocritical based on their love for guns.

If it comes to the music: free jazz is not enough for Matana Roberts, her installations include various forms of noise, gospel, blues and post-rock (In The Garden is produced by TV On The Radio’s Kyp Malone). Her art takes us to territories where no one has been. In its uniqueness Coin Coin is still the most fascinating project in the jazz world.

Note: Originally, jaimie branch was also scheduled to play on the album, which was unfortunately prevented by the trumpeter’s untimely death in August 2022. She is mentioned in the liner notes, the instrument she contributes is called “courage“.

Coin Coin Chapter Five: In the Garden is available on vinyl (as a double 10’ inch), on CD and as a download.

You can listen to the album and buy it from Ms Roberts’ Bandcamp site.


Gary Chapin said...

This is one of the great extended projects of this decade. "Only 7 more chapters to go!" Matana says on her twitter. My fave is Chapter 2, but that might be because it's the first I encountered. This one is wonderful.