BY MIKE SHANLEY
Released in 2011, Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres (“free people of color”) was an ambitious blend of edgy jazz, poetry and theater depicting women in her family. She shifted moods frequently, bringing in strings, extra horns and even a musical saw. The wide scope of the project wasn’t entirely consistent, though, and when Roberts, a sharp-toned alto saxophonist, switched to spoken word, her stilted inflection diminished the impact of the words. Two years on, Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile improves on the first installment because the composer has taken a different approach to the overall performance.
Roberts skips the revolving-door instrumentation in favor of a five-piece band, with the traditional two horns and a rhythm section lineup. The album actually consists of one long piece that’s banded into 18 tracks. Some interludes last as little as eight seconds and the longer pieces, which feature more themes or ideas, all come in under five minutes. Yet it’s easy to miss the transition between tracks and simply hear it as multi-hued large composition. Themes or vamps take shape, fall apart into free improvisation and move immediately to a new section without a chance for momentum to slow down.
The quintet begins out of tempo with Roberts exploring, Coltrane-like, over a single chord. (Her time with Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians plays out in her exploratory playing, as well as her vision.) Before long they’re joined by vocalist Jeremiah Abiah who sings in an operatic tenor voice that sticks out in the quintet’s music, to be generous. Often he sounds more like a vocalist from a different recording, whose exaggerated vibrato somehow leaked onto the tape. While he doesn’t necessarily mesh with Roberts’ tart alto and Jason Palmer’s puckish trumpet, Abiah doesn’t undermine it either. (Considering the way vocals often sound in free jazz, this is no small feat either.)
Roberts engages in some spoken sections, but this time she fires off personal stories with the speed and clarity of a compelling beat poet, avoiding any overwrought delivery. “Amma Jerusalem School,” “Was The Sacred Day” and “Thanks Be You” present first person accounts of growing up in pre-Civil rights south. The line, “There are some things I can’t tell you about,” keeps recurring and sets the intensity at a high level, at which the band delivers. “Woman Red Racked” is one of the most ambitious tracks, a predominantly a capella piece with the rest of the band chanting behind Roberts’ call-and-response vocal. By the time it appears, four songs from the end of the album, the aspirations of Mississippi Moonchile have solidified.
While this album’s predecessor was an interesting if overly elaborate concept, nearly everything lines up on Mississippi Moonchile, in the process revealing a bold direction for both Roberts and modern jazz.
DOWNLOAD: “Thanks Be You,” “River Ruby Dues.”