Album Review: Matana Roberts—”Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile”

By James Li

It’s no small feat to tell the story of black America, and to tell this story through avant-garde jazz is much harder. Chicago-born alto saxophonist Matana Roberts takes up this herculean task in her Coin Coin series, a set of twelve projected albums. Roberts continues her ambitious vision in her latest album, Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile. Roberts began her narrative cycle with Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres, released in 2011, a concept album about her ancestor’s journey from slavery on a Louisiana plantation to a new life as a free woman of colour.

Matana CoverMississippi Moonchile differs from its predecessor with its more mellow, stripped-down approach, in which Roberts pares down her ensemble from a fifteen-member big band to a sextet. The most exciting change is the inclusion of Jeremiah Abiah, an opera singer. Abiah’s heavy tenor meshes well in the context of a jazz album, and provides an interesting counter-point to Roberts’ own singing, especially on the hymnal “Benediction.”

Stylistically, this album is a treat for any jazz aficionado, reading like a love letter to the different historical styles of jazz, from Dixieland to post-bop. Roberts’ musical knowledge goes beyond her skill on the saxophone as she weaves classical music, Delta blues, Negro spirituals, and beat poetry together. Picking a track to exemplify the album’s diversity is hard as this diversity spans all of Roberts’ work. “River Ruby Dues” is adapted from a Negro work song and quotes “Frère Jacques,” while “Was the Sacred Day” combines rollicking hard bop with a deeply spiritual vocal performance. At times, however, this eclecticism is a flaw – the album’s 18 tracks, all under four minutes, can transition abruptly, leaving some promising musical ideas undeveloped and interrupting the album’s narrative flow.

Roberts sings, scats, and speak-sings on this album, and while she’s no Nina Simone, her diverse vocal style brings out her lyricism well. As mentioned before, this album’s narrative takes the listener through Matana’s ancestry As Matana recalls her grandmother’s upbringing as a sharecropper on the banks of the Mississippi and her struggle to forge a new life in East St. Louis. This is just a sample of the heavy themes that the album explores, such as gender, poverty, religion, and segregation, recalling the radical politics of Max Roach and the spiritual consciousness of John Coltrane. But the lyrics are personal and even confessional as Roberts narrates most of the album from her grandmother’s perspective.

Roberts plays many roles on Mississippi Moonchile; a soloist, a composer, a singer, a biographer, a folklorist, and a musicologist. The result is an album that should appeal to jazz snobs or music fans looking for something different. It manages to be historical without being impersonal, cerebral without being inaccessible, and ambitious without being pretentious. Jazz might not be the biggest scene out there today, but it’s refreshing to see that there are still artists like Roberts pushing its frontiers.

Listen to: “Amma Jerusalem School,” “For This Is”

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  1. […] Album Review: “Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile” by Matana Roberts […]

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