Matana Roberts' Coin Coin series takes its name from Marie Thérèse Coincoin, a freed slave who created a community for Creole people in southern Louisiana. Roberts' parents also gave it to her as a nickname. In this title, one identity is referenced as another speaks, tied indelibly because they are informed by the two constant, ever governing (if ever changing) notions in American history, no matter how we try to deny them: race and class. River Run Thee stands in stark contrast to 2011's Gens de Couleur Libre (which featured a jazz orchestra) and 2013's Mississippi Moonchile, written for her sextet. This set is completely solo and has little to do with jazz. While she uses her saxophone, it is only one instrument here -- others are an early 20th century upright piano, various Korg keyboards and delays, field recordings (made on a trip through the American south on trains, buses, and while hitchhiking) and, of course, her singing and speaking voices. Roberts also samples Malcolm X and a homeless woman in Mississippi in 2014, and reads from the work of Captain G.L. Sullivan, who ran free slaves back to Africa. She sings bits of traditional hymns and nationalist and folk songs, too, but the vast majority of the work is her own. There are many narratives at work simultaneously here. They are at once translucent yet endlessly dense, and their meanings are layered in time and the American Grain. What begins on her Southern sojourn moves through pasts distant and recent, coming back into the moment without tripping her up. She is ever present. This has been a trademark of Coin Coin in general, but Roberts has taken its fever dream to a new level here, etched deeply into the soil. She states in the liner notes that the recording is best heard "in a dark room, loud, in one sitting…." It emerges then slips away mercurially, asking pointed questions of itself and the listener even as it reveals truths uncomfortable and comforting. Her free alto saxophone solos, woven throughout the background, are a supporting voice and one that speaks with the same authority as her others. All of it is filtered through ambient noise and other sculpted electronic and organic textural backdrops. They underscore her stories, and shift meanings in word and sound from the narrator(s) to the listener; neither are fixed entities. This is ghost music in the purest sense, because the spirits of those who were commingle with those who are, and both are disembodied and dislocated by the false notions of time and dimension. They inform a multi-linguistic conversation that shapeshifts in and out of the mythologies that America has, and does, believe about itself. All told, "other" histories speak with the same authority as official ones. River Run Thee ups the ante in Roberts' project. It is initially elliptical, but its self-determination, unflinching courage, and intense focus and openness create an indefinable but living, breathing art.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek