Matana Roberts does not make easy listening music.
Although in mainstream culture jazz is frequently relegated to an awards show backdrop or an oh-so-spooky bit of shading for pay-cable political dramas, the music remains a springboard into avant-garde expression for this Chicago-born saxophonist, who explores both personal and social history on “Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile.” A challenging, engrossing listen that follows her ambitious “Chapter One” from 2011, this 49-minute piece (broken into 18 seamless tracks) continues Roberts’ synthesis of free improvisation and spoken word into a unique, shape-shifting compositional voice that she calls “panoramic sound quilting.”
Where Roberts’ last record could be tumultuous with passages of fiery blowing offset by a big band drive, “Mississippi Moonchile” is a swirling celebration of smaller-ensemble free jazz. Operating in a sextet that includes drummer Tomas Fujiwara and trumpeter Jason Palmer, Roberts injects a wild card into her sonic palette in vocalist Jeremiah Abiah, whose operatic tenor arcs across the music. At times, Abiah offers a bracing counterpoint to the musicians’ ebb and flow; at others, it can feel jarring, like the sound of another musician from a neighboring rehearsal space swelling into another, as on the unsettled “Responsory.”
Still, there are rich rewards here. “Twelve Sighed” features some buoyant interplay between Palmer and Roberts that briefly gives way to a second-line bounce of “Spares of the World." Roberts’ alto glides around a glittering piano line from Shoko Nagai, “River Ruby Dues” drops into a churning rhythm before again coalescing around an airy vocal melody.
Roberts’ vision comes into sharpest focus with her “wordspeak,” a mix of spoken-word narration and singing drawn from her family history. “Honey, times was hard,” Roberts repeats over a hypnotic, cascading theme in “Amma Jerusalem School,” which seamlessly splits the saxophonists’ narration with sung references to “His Eyes Are on the Sparrow” and back again, resembling a sort of sonic stream-of-consciousness.
The melody again reappears amid the percolating “Was the Sacred Day,” a mix of personal recollection from Roberts’ grandmother and the Southern civil rights struggle. “Mississippi is a beautiful place,” Roberts chants over a tapped out rhythm and cyclical trumpet run in “Thanks Be You,” and with each repetition the vision becomes more real.
The record can be elusive, something Roberts in part acknowledges in frequently returning to the phrase, “There’s some things I can’t tell you about, honey,” through the album’s vivid second half. She’s speaking in her grandmother’s voice, but the notion also reflects trying to put this spellbinding album into words. It just needs to be heard.
“Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile”
Three and a half stars