Matana Roberts' Genealogy of Jazz

By Morgan, Frances | In These Times, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Matana Roberts' Genealogy of Jazz


Morgan, Frances, In These Times


COIN COIN, A series of musical works by Chicago-born saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts, explores the genealogy of Roberts' own family, and in the process addresses African- American history from slavery to the present day. Chapter One of the work, released on Constellation Records this year and subtitled "Gens de Couleur Libres" ("Free People of Color"), is a 2010 live recording taken from a concert in Montreal in which Roberts plays alto sax and directs a i5-piece band. She also provides spoken, sung and sometimes screamed vocals, in which she narrates the stories of, and sometimes becomes, characters including Coin Coin, the name of 18th-century freed slave Marie Thérèse Coincoin, to whom Roberts claims a distant connection. A variety of American music styles, from swing to blues to big band jazz, as well as Roberts' own free jazz sounds, come in and out of focus over the hour-long performance, creating a shifting, haunting tapestry of memory at once ghostly and invigorating.

It is an intense listen, and there are u more chapters to come, six of which have been now workshopped; a version of Chapter Two, entitled "Mississippi Moonchile" was broadcast last year on NPR. The project has "grown in ways that I did not intend it to," says Roberts, who left Chicago in 1999 to attend graduate school at a conservatory and now lives in New York City, "and it's been interesting to see the many different directions it's taken me."

When initially piecing together the musical language that would become Coin Coin, Roberts found the best analogy for the sprawl of voices and narratives was a visual one: a patchwork quilt. "It's the only way my compositional approach makes sense for me," she says. "The stories that I have are not linear; they bounce around in ways that connect and don't connect It's given me a certain amount of freedom with how I approach the work." When researching her family history, she found exaggerated and misremembered oral histories sometimes sat uneasily alongside the "official" version of events: "It's like a fight among memory, and memory is so much stronger than any piece of paper."

Roberts has been able to track down some genealogical details through sale records of slaves. …

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