To call saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts‘ last full-length release, 2011’s Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Colour Libres, one of the best jazz albums of the century so far would be to do it something of a disservice: whilst undeniably beholden to that genre, its diversions into blues, gospel, spoken word and more – plus the fact the 16-piece big band that brought it to life included members of post-rock titans Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mount Zion – meant such easy categorisation was as impossible as it was inaccurate. Despite featuring a smaller, more traditional line-up, Mississippi Moonchile – the second of twelve chapters set to make up the Coin Coin project Roberts has been developing for many years with several different groups of musicians – is just as stubborn in its refusal to be pigeonholed, and even more thrilling than its predecessor. Using a technique she describes as “panoramic sound quilting” (after the handicraft process slaves used during the Civil War to transmit secret messages), Roberts and her band – Shoko Nagai (piano), Jason Palmer (trumpet), Thomson Kneeland (double bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums) – explore themes of remembrance and restitution, conveying the suffering and survival of her ancestors via a tapestry of traditional African American musical forms, stitching spirituals, call and response singalongs, field songs, ragtime, swing and free jazz into a very different kind of patchwork. Evoking all manner of human emotion with its exquisitely intuitive musicianship, Moonchile is a deeply personal and genuinely moving work that pays loving tribute to the past, but like all of the composer’s work it is also defiantly forward-thinking; Roberts’ avant-garde tendencies come to the fore when tenor vocalist Jeremiah Abiah weighs in on several numbers, but whilst semi-improvised honking and opera may sound to some like a match made in hell, they actually manage to achieve a balance of gravitas and joviality that suits the tone of the piece perfectly. Similarly, Roberts’ own voice – a rousing, soulful sing-speak – is as big a part of the overall narrative as that of her instrument; often content to let Palmer’s trumpet step out of shadow of her horn to dance in the spotlight with Nakai’s sprightly piano, Roberts’ saxophone is more restrained than usual, but as a vocalist she is a commanding presence, especially scatting genealogical beat poetry on “Amma Jerusalem School” (below) and “Was The Sacred Day”. As with Gens de Colour Libres, Mississippi Moonchile feels like a history lesson, but just like that one great teacher you’ll always remember Roberts tells it with such flair, such conviction, such passion that you’ll swear you’re living through it yourself. The Coin Coin project may have another ten chapters to go, but it’s a story you’ll wish would never end.
Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile is out October 1 via Constellation Records