By Phil Freeman
Matana Roberts is a young (younger than me, anyway) alto saxophonist very much worth your attention. Born in Chicago, she’s been mostly New York-based for several years now, and has three albums to her name—The Chicago Project (with guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly backing her on most tracks, plus several saxophone duos with Fred Anderson), Live in London (with pianist Robert Mitchell, bassist Tom Mason and drummer Chris Vatalaro) and the brand new Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres, a live recording featuring too many musicians to list here. (Go read this Chicago Reader piece to get much more information about Coin Coin, and Roberts’ early years, than is provided below. Then come back.) She can also be heard on two CDs by her collaborative trio with Abrams and Chad Taylor, Sticks and Stones, and several records by Greg Tate‘s improvising jazz-funk-rock-etc. ensemble Burnt Sugar.
Roberts’ saxophone sound really works for me. It’s rough and thoroughly human, and/but bolstered by excellent technique and a real sense of composition. She doesn’t just write little singsong melodies that will allow her to solo until the audience begs for mercy. She composes whole pieces, and has complete, multifaceted thoughts. But she’s not a post-Steve Coleman nerd, in any sense. She’s got a deep and unmistakable feeling for the blues, even as she puts together a multi-part suite with narration, strings, and much, much more. Coin Coin is a hyper-ambitious work that never becomes alienating; indeed, it’s one of the most interesting and emotionally involving jazz records I’ve heard all year. The final track, “How Much Would You Cost?”, is fucking heartbreaking.
Here’s a video of the Chicago Project band playing live in 2007:
And here’s a solo performance from All Tomorrow’s Parties in December 2010:
The interview (originally conducted for a feature which will appear in the next issue of The Wire) is after the jump.
Darius Jones says alto saxophonists tend to be purists who only play alto, while tenor saxophonists are “whores” who’ll play soprano, alto, C-melody, whatever.
That sounds like Darius.
What about you? Do you play more than one horn?
I play clarinet. That’s my secondary horn. I feel like my voice is really on the alto saxophone, but I started on clarinet, so it’s a very easy instrument for me to go back to, and I enjoy improvising on it and creating work on it. The other saxophones just have never really been of much interest to me. Sometimes I don’t feel there’s enough love for the alto, and I think the alto needs a certain kind of concentration. The tenor does too, but it’s just different. It’s a different sort of feeling.
There’s a quote in the press release for Coin Coin that describes your “continued attraction/repulsion to parts of the American jazz tradition”—what parts repel you?
The sections that I find most repellent are just the factions that don’t allow for original expression of any kind. Where it’s so much about the re-creation of people who are long dead, or people who have made a certain sort of statement and so then you have a whole series of people who want to just kind of re-quote those people. I don’t really find that interesting. I don’t have a problem with it, and I accept it, but I feel like there are certain elements of that tradition that is not accepting for someone like me, and I’ve gotten tired of being quiet about it. I used to keep it inside and say, well, this is the core music from which I come, and I’m not going to deny that, and I don’t want to disrespect it, but it’s gotten to a certain point where someone has to say something and I feel like I’m in a position to be honest about those things. And there’s also the patriarchy involved as well. That’s a whole other thing that has not always completely let me in, and so I’m just gonna make my own doorway.
As a critic, the thing I hate the most is when major labels put out a “Young Guy plays the music of Dead Guy” album.
Yeah, it’s just embarrassing. I get so embarrassed about that because the people that they have do that are very talented musicians, you know? I feel bad for them.
Now speaking of patriarchy, you’re a member of the AACM…
I am a distant member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. I’m not as active as I used to be.
That has kind of a boys’ club reputation. So tell me a little about that, and also what you see as the role or mission of the AACM in 2011 as compared with the function it served in the 1960s and 1970s?
Well, I have a deep love for that organization. I’m also a member of the Black Rock Coalition. Musicians, artists coming together, if I can be any sort of part of that, I’m gonna be part of that. The AACM is very particular in that they have always done a lot of community outreach and a lot of community work in conjunction with what they do. Which is partly how I became involved with them, maybe back in ’95 or ’96. I was teaching at their school, the community school, they were doing that sort of outreach work. And I also came up listening to a lot of their music, thanks to family members who were really into the AACM. So there’s that. The question of womanhood within that, I think it’s part of a larger issue as why, when I was coming up, you didn’t really see that many women. There were women, but there weren’t very many woman horn players in Chicago, for instance, when I was coming up. I feel like those things are gonna shift. What I see the AACM doing in 2011 versus what it did in the ’60s and where I get the most encouragement from is they’re very good at creating environments. The first and second generation of folk who were more pioneering, you know? The New York AACM, which I’m more involved with at this point than the Chicago AACM, from my experience with them they’re always creating environments for younger musicians to have a platform to do what it is they would really like to do. I think that’s their most important [role], showcasing that and also, with my recent involvement with the New York AACM, it’s been very interesting—there’s a lot of talk of, you know, we all have to stick together. It’s all about all these individual voices, but also trying to come together in some way, even if it’s very simple. You know, showing up at the AACM concerts and just seeing people, or going out to see other people’s work, or just letting them know that you can talk to them. I’ve gotten so much great advice from Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis and Amina Claudine Myers. It’s a blast as an alto saxophone player to see Henry Threadgill at my shows. That’s a nervous moment, you know, but it’s a huge compliment. So it’s complicated, but I’m glad that I’ve had the access and connection to those people, and also folks in Chicago, like Nicole Mitchell. That’s a huge help for me. Fred Anderson, I can’t even—you wouldn’t even know my name if it wasn’t for Fred Anderson.
The duets with Anderson on The Chicago Project are pretty interesting—you seem to have gotten him out of his comfort zone and kept him from returning to the stock phrases he used a lot of the time. How did that work? What was it like playing with him?
It was something, you know. Originally what I was going to do—I wanted to create that record to thank people who have helped me to be where I am at this moment, and everyone on that record—Josh Abrams and Jeff Parker I’ve known forever, Frank Rosaly is someone I met towards the end there, but they’ve always been very supportive. And Fred, originally what I wanted is I was going to do a trio of me, Fred Anderson and I wanted Von Freeman. Because the two of them were really kind of the pillars, coming up in Chicago. But I’m really glad that I didn’t do that because you would have had to carry me out on a stretcher after it was over. Fred was being very gracious on those [tracks]. He was always teaching me and showing me by example. He was a man of very few words and when he did speak it was very powerful. And when he spoke through his horn, it was just as powerful. So at those particular sessions—I don’t even think I can put into words what I learned, yet, you know? There was so much knowledge and so much wisdom he was giving in those moments that I will be able to listen back to them for years to come and think, Oh yeah, he did this here in this part of the duet. I wonder why?
The whole Chicago atmosphere is so different—New York is so cannibalistic, and it’s only in recent years that people have started coming together to help each other.
Things are changing in New York in interesting ways. I mean, there’s always been—I used to get kind of down on New York about the sense of community. Having some sense of community is very important to me, and the reason why my life is so gypsy-like in some ways has a lot to do with not always being able to find that community in New York. But it is here, and it’s really here right now with a lot of the burgeoning things going on in Brooklyn, and some stalwart places still around trying to support musicians. Everybody’s moving to Brooklyn right now. I mean, the Roulette experimental music space is moving to Brooklyn, Issue Project Room is moving deeper into Brooklyn, you still have places like the Jazz Gallery that’s been always very supportive of people, and you still have—I mean, for what it’s worth, Patricia Parker works really hard on behalf of the Vision Festival and Arts for Art, so you have that, and then you have other people who are realizing that there needs to be more opportunity. I like looking at people like John Zorn, for instance, who—they’re creating their work and they’re creating their music, but they’re also finding ways to give back to their community and create community. The Stone, to me, is kind of like that. And Tonic was sort of like that, but not so much. The Stone is more like that, for me. And [Zorn] helped me do curation at a space, the University of the Streets, which used to be a pretty happening space I guess a while back and it’s kind of fallen under the radar, and now a whole new community of musicians is trying to do things there. And then you have musicians in Brooklyn coming together, there’s a Brooklyn Improvisers’ or Jazz Collective that’s happening. You’ve got George Lewis at Columbia University holding these open public symposia and talks and things that many musicians in Manhattan are making their way over to. So there are all these different things going on, but in New York you have to work harder to see them sometimes. Because you’re just shocked. You’re just walking around in shock every day.
The Live in London album was recorded with little or no preparation or rehearsal, yes? Was that dictated by circumstance or did you plan it that way?
Partly the plan. We had played together before at the Vortex maybe a year earlier. But yes, partly by circumstance, because I don’t live there, but I wanted to have—I wanted to figure out a way to have ensembles in different places that I can develop material with over time. And the musicians on that record are folks I’d been very familiar with for a while, so I knew what they could handle, and I’d played with them before, so I was like, Let’s do this, and then right before that was supposed to happen I got a call that the BBC wants to record this live, and to be honest, as a composer and a performer I was like, I don’t know. You know? It’s gonna be really raw, and I’m not sure I want to encapsulate that for the world to hear at the moment. I’ll encapsulate it for me to hear and consider. But then they recorded it and broadcast it and I was like, fine, that’s great, nobody will hear it. And then Central Control contacted me and said, ‘You know, these sets are great. We should put this out.’ And I originally was like, No, no, no. No no no no no. ‘Cause it’s so raw. But I do love live recordings, and I was like, Well, this is an opportunity for people to really hear us riding by the seat of our pants. Cause that’s what that record really is.
Are you still a member of Burnt Sugar?
No. I stopped playing in Burnt Sugar in maybe 2006, but they’re really good at continuing to put out records that I’m on. [laughs]
What was your experience with that group like? What did you take from it, and what was the studio methodology like?
Their studio methodology is “By any means necessary.” Get in there and do it. That’s what I remember. Greg Tate is a big champion of me, and championed me from the moment I got here, and playing in that band is really fun, traveling with that band is really fun, but it’s also really exhausting. It’s pretty exhausting work in some ways. It takes a lot. But learning that conduction system is very interesting, and I also got a chance to work with Butch Morris through that, when he would conduct Burnt Sugar from time to time. And you got to see the differences. Greg is a wild conductor, you know?
Yeah. I saw the group play at the Vision Festival [in 2004], and I think you were still a member at that point.
Oh, wow, yeah. That was so long ago. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I learned how to really center my sound, ’cause you have to in that band. If you don’t do that, ain’t nobody gonna hear you. So you’ve gotta really, really center your sound. And it was interesting—a lot of the horn players had electronic effects, and during that time I was trying to be a real purist about that and I was very anti-that. Some of them would say, “Just get yourself a little something,” and I was like, No! I’m about the alto, the sound of the alto. That’s what I want people to hear. You know, these things. They really opened me up, that band.
What kind of leader are you, generally?
Ooh. Hmm. Um, I would like to think that I leave room for people to really express their true essence in some of the music, which is kind of why I’m really interested in graphic notation. A lot of the Coin Coin scores are graphically notated, with a mixture of Western notation and graphic notation—it gives an opportunity for real kind of opening. I hope that I am the type of leader that allows that opening. I like to hope that I’m the type of leader that tries to respect the other musicians in every possible aspect that I can. Which in some ways is one reason why I haven’t put out that many records. Because I’m not always approached by record labels in a way that treats the other musicians respectfully. And that’s really important to me. I like to treat people the way that I wish to be treated, since I have worked under other bandleaders myself. But I don’t think I can really answer that question honestly. I think I’m quite biased.
Do you compose full pieces, usually, or do you mostly just write platforms for improvisation?
No, sometimes I do compose full pieces. It depends on how they come to me. a lot of the early records that I did with Josh Abrams and Chad Taylor as Sticks and Stones, a lot of those compositions were straight—they just kind of poured out. One of the reasons I created the Coin Coin work is so I could deal with these patches that I would write and I just couldn’t figure out—they would not come out fully formed, and I could not figure out what to do with them. Or they’d come out in these snippets, and then I’d focus on carving these snippets into things I’d like, but they still were not fully formed. And then I found out later that oh, yesterday I heard this part, but a month later I could hear this part. And these two things are part of the same thing, and I’m going to put them together, and seeing them together, oh, here it is. So it depends on the ensemble and the environment that I’m writing for, to be honest.
What is the source of the spoken texts? Are they family history or something written specially for this?
I do different things. Because I like to write. I was a zine writer for a while there. The zines I do now, I don’t really deal with so much text, and I’m dealing with this blogosphere stuff, and I go back and forth about that. But the text—it was a chance for me to explore creative writing, which is something I’m interested in, and it’s a tradition I come from in my own family. Very verbose people, sometimes a little too over-intellectual, some of them, but that is just how things are. You know? It’s just how it is. [laughs] And then there’s this whole other side, of fewer words, coming from a different sort of background. So there’s always this mix. The texts on the record that you heard is a text that I created myself, imagining myself as a slave woman and telling this story. And I’ve tweaked it over the last four or five years, I’ve changed some things. I used to do theater, I did theater in Chicago, God, mid ’90s, early ’90s, and one play I was involved with more on the musical side, not the poetry side, though, was Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. And I got to sit and listen to that poetry—I think that show ran for six months at the Steppenwolf Theater. And I got to sit and listen to that poetry and the way it infused me was really, really powerful. And I wanted to figure out a way to do that with my own work. So the words that you hear, I’m speaking by memory and trying to infuse them and trying to become. The second chapter of Coin Coin, that text is actually an interview I did with my 80-year-old, paternal, Mississippi-born grandmother, where you hear her answers but not my questions, and I read it like prose.
When is the second chapter going to be released?
We’re still talking about it. There’s a live recording of that up on A Blog Supreme. They have a version of it running. It’s not the version that I would put out, but it will give you some idea. I hope to put that out next year.
The press release says the Coin Coin project is multimedia—are you planning on doing anything that would be filmed for a DVD, say? Are the visuals necessary to the work?
It’s not necessary, and it’s been really interesting to see if it is. There was one show that I did recently in Seattle where I could not get the whole visual projections and things that I use to work. I’m interested in also doing sound installations and creating sound environments, so this is also a chance for me to deal with that, and I build videos, so there was this performance I did with ten improvisers in Seattle of the chapter that you heard, and the video would not work. And it was like, All right, well, we’re gonna see whether the music can really stand for itself. And it did. But the visual element is very much a part of the music, the way that I bring the music together. I don’t explore the visual element in every chapter of Coin Coin. But the first chapter for sure, and the second chapter, and some of the solo chapters, I do do that. And I hope to do more with the visuals actually part of the score that the musicians are dealing with. And so that’s kind of the next step.
A lot of jazz players are very involved with social media—they’re all over Twitter and Facebook especially. But your MySpace page is a ghost town, you’re not on Facebook anymore…is this a conscious retreat?
It is a conscious retreat, because I find it incredibly overwhelming at times. If I had known that these were the things that I would have to do in order to survive, to make my work, I would not be doing what I’m doing. I’m not so sure. So I’ve had to find some different ways to kind of navigate around it. Facebook, I think, was very interesting. For me personally sometimes it started to feed weird ideas of ego that made me really uncomfortable. So I was like, Okay, I’ve gotta find another way. Twitter…I said I was never gonna join Twitter. “The root word of Twitter is twit, and I’m not doing this.” But at the same time, the DIY aesthetic is very important to me. Doing it yourself, and the amount of things that you can do now to get things out there to people—it’s amazing. So what I do is I see what works for a while, and then kind of move away. Facebook—I’m not sure people really look at their feeds that much, you know what I’m saying? Because you get so many things. Twitter is interesting. I try to keep it limited. I’ve learned some things about that. Same thing with Facebook. There was definitely a learning curve. But what I like about Twitter is it’s taught me to be a little less verbose in general. Blogs, the whole blogosphere thing is interesting, especially what it’s done for the whole jazz community, but I’ve also found that the blogosphere, if you’re not careful in how you utilize it, it can actually push people away, in the same way that a jazz solo can push listeners away if there’s a certain foundation of understanding that is not there for them. So I’ve kind of changed the way that I deal with that. I feel that MySpace, I just don’t know what to think about it, but I am overwhelmed by technology, yes. To sum it up, I’m overwhelmed.