Chicago-born, New York-based alto saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts made waves with her debut, The Chicago Project, in 2008, and earlier this year with her Live in London set issued by Barry Adamson's Central Control imprint. Coin Coin Chapter One: Les Gens de Couleur Libres on Constellation, is the opening salvo in a projected 12-part musical statement, and stands apart in her catalog. The large 16-piece ensemble was recorded in a Montreal studio live in front of a small audience. Roberts plays various reeds and vocalizes; she is accompanied by a stellar cast of musicians playing everything from horns and strings to electric looped guitars to a musical saw. The album is conceptual and dramatic -- yet stridently self-controlled -- a new chapter in the book of vanguard jazz. Her album employs family stories through the narrator's tales of a distant relative (alternately a physical presence and a ghost) named "Coin Coin" (a.k.a. Marie Therese Metoyer a freed slave from the 18th century who founded her own community along Louisiana's Can River; a giant figure in African American history), she portrays strong black female archetypes throughout history, around which she constructs her own myths (of interwoven facts and fictions). Roberts understands implicitly the power of restraint in these compositions, though free improvisation as a dialogue is also imperative. The wailing saxophone that commences the album on "Rise" is a clarion call answered by a piano responding and conversing for nearly two-and-a-half minutes before a muted trumpet and strings enter. The rhythm section begins haltingly, becoming more urgent as the piece progresses, creating a pole between piano and bass as horns flit in and out, up and around the strings; hints of melodies assert themselves fleetingly and disappear quickly. "Pov Piti" begins with the piano and droning strings before a vocalist utters a primal wave of wordless expression that builds to a crescendo before Roberts' alto enters, playing repetitive, haunting lines in a bluesy tone; she is answered by strings, horns, and other voices before she begins to vocally narrate. These pieces serve as an introduction for this ensemble's journey through a labyrinthine past. It's provocative, uncompromising, and quite moving emotionally. The completely sung, near-gospel call and response of "Libation for Mr. Brown: Bid Em In...." introduces the beautiful responsorial "Lulla/Bye," where Roberts' alto, strings, and piano highlight gorgeous females singing a near spiritual before it gives way to the urgent free playing that alternates dynamically in "I Am." The set closes with "How Much Would You Cost," wherein the question is asked literally and upfront in a deceptively simple, almost nursery-rhymed song that underlines the preciousness of human life, which is all the more powerful for its unassuming and unwavering directness. It is illumined only by a hypnotic bassline and ends this gorgeous, singular performance. Roberts is in her own league as an improviser, a composer, and conceptualist. Given the success of this album, she creates great anticipation for the next installment in her project.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek