Yes, social media can be a waste of time, and a low self esteem machine. Yes, it facilitates hate and social sniping. But – with a good roster of musical friends it can also introduce you to a lot of great new music – both in the sense of just released, and new-to-you.
My latest case in point is the music of Matana Roberts, which one of my FB friends posted about several weeks ago. I went online and looked around and discovered her Coin Coin series of releases, of which Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis is the most recent, released in 2019. Based on some quick Wikipedia research, this is the first of her releases that qualifies for this series of nods I’ve been giving to top notch records made by musical artists who have crossed the life meridian of the age of 40 – but all of the Coin Coin chapters are great. I look forward to number 5, and hope she makes it all the way to the finish line of a planned 12 album cycle that weaves together family history and history writ large.
History is my favorite subject to teach, and the more I get into it the more it has worked its way into my music too. I wrote earlier in this series about the work of Mike Ladd and Vijay Iyer, and that’s a good reference point for something going on here which has to do with the use of multiple musical genres of influence being used to capture something about the way the fabric of history is made by a messy and contentious blend of very different groups of people. There’s also a relationship to jazz as a genre that is a point of departure or reference more than arrival. Roberts is based in New York but hails from Chicago and used to be a member of the AACM, who share with her a desire to distance themselves from & refuse the label of jazz due to both the roots of that term in American racism and their embrace a wider and longer the lineage of what they refer to as creative music or Great Black Music. Roberts has also been a member of the Black Rock Coalition, and has played with rock artists like TV on the Radio and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Since I just came to her music, I’ll reproduce her “About” statement from her website rather than say more about her overall direction/identity:
“MY NAME IS MATANA ROBERTS. I AM AN AMERICAN SAXOPHONIST, COMPOSER, AND MULTIDISCIPLINARY ARTIST.I AM MOST INTERESTED IN SONIC EXPERIMENTATION, THRU THE LENS OF ENDURANCE, PERSEVERANCE, MIGRATION, LIBERATION, OBLATION, IMPROVISATION, AND THE MANY LAYERS OF COGNITIVE DISSONANCE THEREIN AS IT RELATES TO HISTORY. MY ARTISTIC SCOPE IS WIDER THAN MAYBE IT SHOULD BE AT TIMES, AND I AM CHARTING A SONIC/VISUAL TRAJECTORY THAT OFTEN CROSS REFERENCES MULTIPLE MEDIUMS IN SOUND AND BEYOND. BUT I STEER MY WORK PROCESS VIA MY OWN CURIOSITY,SELF CHALLENGE, LOVE OF POSSIBILITY, AND AM GRATEFUL TO KEEP BEING GIVEN CONTINUAL OPPORTUNITIES TO EXPLORE. THIS SITE IS AN ARCHIVE OF SOME OF THOSE IDEAS I HAVE PUSHED FORTH, AND SOME THAT I AM STILL WORKING ON. ART MAKING, LIKE LIVING, IS A RATHER PRECARIOUS PROCESS. AND I STAND BELOVED AND IN AWE OF IT ALL.”
If you want a more standard name checking award citing biography she refers you here. But I like that she doesn’t define herself by name checking on her own website, though we all know it must be done at some point if you’re trying to get people to pay attention to your music. As a public school teacher, I really appreciate how she foregrounds her music education in the Chicago Public Schools on her standard bio in a way that takes a clear stance against elitism that feels authentic and rings true with how the music feels:
“A self-taught mixed media composer, the Chicago-born Roberts earned two degrees in performance from a smattering of American institutions but received her primary training from free arts programs in the American Public School System.”
From spending a few weeks with these records on heavy rotation, I hear that she’s a fantastic saxophone player and composer, but also an incredible vocalist and writer. The voice on her records tends to come in after long instrumental sections, which is a really smart formal decision because it makes you feel an energy field that is not mediated by words before she introduces the fragmentary and allusive narratives through her voice. The historical material and exploration is absorbed on multiple levels and doesn’t let you have the comfort of assuming that you totally understand everything about it. That’s what history feels like in real time, whether we want to admit it or not. Her voice has subtle inflections that comment on the voices from the past she channels even as she quotes them, and can inhabit multiple personalities with ease in a way that reminds me of a Charles Dickens novel where the minor characters are as vivid as the main ones. The description of the Memphis album on her Bandcamp page recites these vocal transformations like a spiritual chant, and ties her saxophone and vocal performances together by mentioning their common nature of channeling and directing the breath:
“Roberts also emphasizes non-male subjects and thematizes these other-gendered stories with a range of vocal and verbal techniques: singspeak, submerged glossolalic recitation, guttural cathartic howl, operatic voice, gentle lullaby, group chant, and the recuperation of various American folk traditionals and spirituals, whether surfacing in fragmentary fashion or as unabridged set-pieces. The root of this vocality comes from her dedication to the legacy of her main chosen instrument, the alto saxophone.”
Much as Dickens captured something about England during the Industrial Revolution of his day, Roberts captures a whole lot about America with her voice and her instrumental arrangements. I’ve read that travel is an important part of her creative process, and it shows in the geographical pastiche that the Coin Coin series offers, one she refers to as “Panoramic sound quilting.” Much as this musical term refuses the facile category of Jazz on a musical level, her ideas about the history her records wrestle with refuse the facile category of Black History, which often is used to erase the role of white people in shaping the course of exploitation and brutality in American history overall.
“I want to be linked to [the Black Arts Movement] until my last day, but I also hope for people to see my work as it sits in a certain sense of American-ness, and not just as something for Black History Month,” Roberts told BOMBMagazine in 2015.
She has said that she would like to use the historical series she is building as a platform to address contemporary forms of slavery, and I really look forward to seeing how that unfolds. In my opinion, the most single important sentence I teach students every year is the first section of the Thirteenth Amendment, which leaves open the gaping loophole that slavery is still legal as a punishment for a crime:
Section 1: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
It’s a great text for teaching students the importance of understanding every part of a sentence, and how one part of a sentence can try to overshadow or hide another clause that causes major repercussions for years. Once students understand that the prison system has been used to secure a constant source of slave labor by and for American Capital, the continuity from the slave patrols of antebellum slavery, to the police forces that enforced Jim Crow laws before the Civil Rights movement, to the police and paramilitary units that carry out Mass Incarceration and public executions today is not that hard to understand.
When I read and teach about American history, I’m often struck by how chaotic and violent it was, and yet also by how poetic some of its sensibilities and ideals can be. I like how this music captures both of those things. You’re rumbling through a forest of cacophony and density one minute, and the next minute you break into a bucolic clearing that provides a supportive atmosphere in which historical trauma can be named and processed with words that stop you in your tracks. These are five star albums – check ’em out here at her Bandcamp page. It’s worth getting the vinyl because Roberts is a gifted visual artist whose scores are works of art in themselves, some of them reproduced on these sleeves. My second favorite along with Memphis is Chapter Three: River Run Thee, which is a multi-tracked and multi-layered solo performance that weaves sampling and electronics together with her saxophone and voice.