Jazz composer, saxophonist and visual-artist Matana Roberts powerful and profound Coin Coin album series has reached its fifth chapter with the release of harrowingly resonant ‘In the Garden’ via Montreal’s Constellation Records. The album continues Roberts’ resolute commitment to a twelve-part song cycle which began in 2011 with ‘Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres’ and unfolded with three further albums ‘Mississippi Moonchile’ (2013)‘, ‘river run thee’ (2015) and ‘Memphis’ (2019). It’s a saga woven in the traditions of African-American culture and celebrant of an emancipatory drive, each step capturing lived experiences through an incomparable web of jazz, improv, post rock, electronics and spoken word. As Roberts explained on Chapter four’s sleeve notes, “I speak memory, I sing an american survival through horn, song, sadness, and sometimes gladness“.
On this latest in the series all these facets of compositional flare merge to soundtrack the story of a woman from Roberts’ ancestral pathway who died following complications from an illegal abortion. It’s a story both profound and tragic, reflective and ultimately uplifting that demands a level of avant-rock dynamism and free jazz daring to match the album’s earnest emotional pull. The band that Roberts has gathered for ‘In the Garden’, which includes Stuart Bogie (Antibalas/TV On The Radio) and Cory Smythe (Ingrid Laubrock /Anthony Braxton) plus TV On The Radio’s Kyp Malone on synths and production, more than meet the challenge.
Coin Coin Chapter Five’s opening sequence we said / different rings / unbeknownst in a way introduces the elements that Roberts uses to build her latest work. From the ticking alarms of triangle rings to the groaning monotone brass drones, there’s a cloying back-alley darkness to these first frames. A marching band with trilling pipes that collapses into improv, the constant chatter of background voices which scat wildly, all add to the sense of unreal. unbeknownst brings focus, setting a scene with mournful brass and processional snare to frame Roberts’ powerful poetry. Taking the voice of the album’s central character, key lyrical moments are spoken for the first time, defiant (“they didn’t know I was electric, alive, spirited, fire and free”) and inspirational (“My name is your name, our name is their name, we are named, we remember, they forget”). The impact is sobering and significant.
Roberts in the past has referred to their music as “panoramic sound quilting“’ and in many ways ‘In the Garden’ extends that crafted approach. There is structure and sequence here, patterns and parameters that make up the whole. Those spoken word pieces that thread through the album are key to its integrity as well as its interpretation. They tell the story and provide the album’s backbone but also add variation through stunning, often unexpected musical combinations. how prophetic starkly pairs the resigned narration of being trapped as a “dutiful wife” with an urgent, energetic jazz rock back beat while a Waits- like circus tune haunts enthralled not by her curious blend. Here the child-like synth patterns get prodded with electric shocks before finding some calm in a soothing sax melody. But perhaps a(way) is not an option sees Roberts’ poetic composition at its most gripping as the spoken word spirals from gently drifting hope to a manic world of delirious staccato violin, clattering drums, thumb piano shamanism and other-world scatology. All these twists and turns intensify the events being told but with more definition than mere backing music.
The dramatic tension that sustains you through ‘In the garden’ also hinges on other pivotal musical moments. The inspired trilogy of but I never heard a sound so long, the promise and shake my bones allow a warm surge of soul to elevate the album, blending lullaby, gospel and raw beauty in a breath-taking combination. Elsewhere predestined confessions quivers with the spiritual ache of Pharoah Sanders while a caged dance transports a lonely sax ballad to somewhere insular and mysterious on a whisper of moaning notes and ghosting found sounds.
If you factor in the squalling blasts of free jazz which punctuate the album it’s a wonder that, with all these jolts and swerves, the complex journey stays on track. Even the closing moments of ‘In the Garden’ bring the unexpected. The final narrated song for they do not know with its chiming synth showers and swelling vocal chorale seems draw the line but then there’s a coda, the gasping improv of others each, and ain’t I…your mystery is our history, which revisits the album’s opening themes. It’s as if Roberts wants to emphasise the circular, to take us back to the beginning in order to tell us that these injustices, told through historical account, continue.
‘In the Garden’ graphically exposes some brutal truths. It looks back in time in order to understand, reflect where we are now and point towards a restorative future. Sounds like a grand statement, well Matana Roberts has the integrity and artistry to make it.
Get your copy of ‘Coin Coin Chapter Five – In the Garden’ by Matana Roberts From your local record store or direct from Constellation Records HERE