Based in New York, born in Chicago and closely aligned with the Montreal post-rock scene, saxophonist Matana Roberts is the rare musician for whom jazz and post-rock are a large part of her creative persona. This shouldn’t by any means come as something unusual; post-rock has always contained some elements of jazz regardless, from rhythmic complexity to improvisation. Yet since appearing on Godspeed! You Black Emperor’s Yanqui U.X.O., Roberts has focused more of her effort on jazz, having begun the composition of a massive 12-part project back in 2006 that seeks to explore her heritage and ancestry, the first chapter of which has been released by Constellation Records as COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres.
The 60-minute COIN COIN is an epic and sprawling beginning to what promises to be an emotionally charged and exhausting, yet breathtaking series, comprising eight tracks of passionate jazz compositions combined with spoken-word passages. Recorded live in front of a small audience in Montreal, the album is edited down from a longer 90-minute performance, yet the pieces are so beautifully recorded and densely layered with crisp and stunning instrumentation, one would be hard pressed to identify it as a live record. Yet the sheer intimacy of the performance apparently made the experience all the more moving and unique. It reportedly brought audience members to tears, which is not the least bit surprising, given the powerful instrumentation and Roberts’ poetry, which deals heavily in African-American history and slavery (the title, Gens de Couleur Libres, translates to “Free people of color”).
Roberts sets the album ablaze with intensity on first track “Rise,” bleating out a burst from her sax that recalls free-jazz luminaries like Albert Ayler, as well as the instrument’s most famous titan, John Coltrane. In fact, as I played this track on my iPod, apparently oblivious to the volume level, the shriek sent a shock through my system that rivaled a similar time when the Dillinger Escape Plan destroyed my ears. By second track “Pov Piti,” however, Roberts begins to incorporate more vocals, at first letting out a throaty, abrasive gargle that transitions into a half-spoken half-sung meditation on race, the likes of which continue throughout the album, often accompanied by Gitanjali Jain, who complements Roberts’ vocals with French-spoken verses of her own. These two tracks act as an important introduction to the album, both laying a groundwork for the duality that exists between instrumental passages and spoken pieces, as well as putting two of the record’s most abrasive pieces up front, not easing the listener in but sending a shock to the system that’s later treated to more accessible and sometimes gentler material.
Toward the album’s center, Roberts’ compositions grow less abrasive, and showcase a stronger melodic core, but nonetheless present some truly challenging artistry. “Song For Eulalie” ascends and descends a rhythmic spiral staircase before easing into haunting ethereality. The outstanding “Kersalia” erupts with a swinging rhythm and stunning melody before introducing dueling soliloquies, and ultimately kicking up into some Dixieland-style hot jazz. A sizable chunk of the nearly ten-minute “Libation for Mr. Brown: Bid em in…” is performed a cappella, Roberts’ vocals mimicking a slave auction via a gorgeous gospel-style delivery. Yet one of the simplest and most touching tracks is saved to close out the album; “How Much Would You Cost?” is a tuneful and beautiful waltz, which Roberts dedicates to mother. And the applause that erupts at the track’s end serves as the sole reminder that this is, in fact, a live document, which is all the more incredible in light of how complex and rich the material is, and how beautifully it’s performed.
While COIN COIN is very much a jazz album, it’s something far more complex than that. It’s also a work of gospel, poetry, soul and avant garde music, covering a wide range of ground while maintaining true to a cohesive statement of passion and self-discovery. It’s a work of joy and pain, sometimes quite abrasive at that, but it’s a jaw-dropping document that stands as a unique and unparalleled work of art.
Albert Ayler – Spiritual Unity
Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.