When New York saxophonist Matana Roberts released the first chapter of her projected 12-part Coin Coin project in 2011, she was already a known commodity in the jazz world. Though she had also collaborated with TV on the Radio, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, the fact that chapters one and two in the series featured a jazz orchestra and a smaller ensemble, respectively, seemed to restrict those records to jazz audiences and those willing to give the genre a chance. Roberts goes solo for chapter three, river run thee, using the studio as a loom to weave together flurries of sax, spoken word, field recordings, and other electronic effects into a startling document that continues her profound exploration of race, gender, history, and identity.
It could be that Roberts is aware of the limitations that can come with the jazz tag. “It’s not a jazz record,” she tweeted recently, and certainly much of its focus comes from a space and time in which “jazz” doesn’t have the following it used to. Pieces of traditional songs pour through the mix like mist, Roberts’ singing voice seeping between trees of electronic grit and saxophone wails.
Whereas Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile flowed as a single, uninterrupted whole, river run thee takes that enveloping power to an extreme. The album feels truly inescapable, a fitting quality for a saga dominated by a national history of slavery and the culture it spawned. There’s a spiritual quality to Roberts’ harmonies on “Dreamer of Dreams”, something escapist, yearning, her saxophone curling like smoke. “I like to tell stories,” she delivers insistently on “As Years Roll By”, followed by electronic drone, bird songs, and rough-hewn music box tones. As the layers tighten, multiple Robertses jumbling over and rippling through each other, she rings out in anticipation of the church bells: “Amen.”
Only three chapters in, the Coin Coin series gathers, composes, deconstructs, and reexamines so many histories. Chapter Three is the most personal, and also the densest, so richly layered that it can be near impossible to pick phrases out of the fog on tracks like the burrowing “Come Away”. But when the words do come through, they ring loudly: “regret,” “slaves,” “ship,” and “owner” sting in her plainspoken insistence. As Matana Roberts continues to dig through the past, it doesn’t become simpler, and neither does she. river run thee is the most challenging entry in her massive undertaking, but a truth like this shouldn’t be easy.
Essential Tracks: “Dreamer of Dreams”, “As Years Roll By”, and “Come Away”