Matana Roberts Quartet
The Vortex Jazz Bar
April 1, 2009
While Barack Obama was in town for the G20 summit, the American president wasn't the only recent Chicago resident to be making waves in London. As Obama and the other G20 leaders provoked an outpouring of discontent and police helicopters buzzed over protestors, just a few miles down the road from the City banks, upcoming saxophonist Matana Roberts faced a rather less equivocal response from a packed house at the Vortex on the first leg of a short UK tour.
As with many Afro-American musicians from Chicago, the AACM has played an important role in Roberts' artistic life, with veteran saxophonist Fred Anderson a particular mentor. Currently domiciled in New York, Roberts has struggled to get due recognition at home. However her talent has been recognized by Barry Adamson and his Central Control label, which released Roberts' best distributed recording The Chicago Project (Central Control, 2008), leading to regular appearances in the UK. As a result, Roberts has hooked up with an empathetic group of British musicians, and her band this evening was the same as for her triumphant appearance at the Vortex back in January 2008: pianist Robert Mitchell, bassist Tom Mason and drummer Chris Vatalaro.
Even though this was the first date of the tour, there was a tightness to the band which bespoke familiarity and a shared conception. But make no mistake, this was Roberts' band playing her music, though conversely they started with a cover of "My Sister" by Frankie Sparo. Though less autobiographical than Roberts' Mississippi Moonchile or Coin Coin projects, her soulful alto saxophone clarion intro gave the sense of a storyteller with deeply personal tales to tell, a view confirmed as the set progressed. Vatalaro joined on brushes to accompany the saxophonist, before a gesture from Roberts brought in Mitchell's prancing piano and some arco basswork for a freeish conversational section. They segued into a lyrically drifting passage with long alto tones over a skittish rhythm, before Roberts indicated an arco riff, which shortly became a unison line for saxophone and bass, for an opening indicative of involved and engaged group explorations which set the template for the rest of the evening.
Using a personal language of hand signals to orchestrate the band, Roberts shaped the arc of the proceedings thereafter, indicating instrumental additions and subtractions and switches in and out of time. A glance at their charts in the break between sets revealed more than just standard musical notation, with graphic symbols and lists of imagery sitting alongside the notes, and partly explaining the inside/outside feel to the music. At one point as she soloed, Roberts appeared to be drawing inspiration from the paintings adorning the walls of the Vortex, evidence that here was an artist seeking ways of extending herself, her band and her audience. With a fulsome keening tone, the saxophonist led from the front, investigating repeated motifs to build her angular flights of fancy, occasionally extending her range with grunts, distortions and multiphonic honks but never disrupting the flow of where she was going.
In the introduction to the second piece, thinking better of an a capella start, Roberts glanced at Mitchell, saying "I'm scared of you. Let's do it together," beckoning the pianist to join in a quicksilver duet, and rightly so, for Mitchell proved a fearsome improvisor, his nimble jazzy lines all but leaping from the keyboard. Mitchell's pecking fingers picked up pace as he upped the intensity, with one glissando down the keyboard bringing a warm smile to Roberts' face.
As a rhythm section, Mason and Vatalero were impressively tight, handling switches of tempo and dynamics with aplomb. Vatalero brought an imaginative approach to his drum set, showing great attention to detail and texture, as when he draped beads across his cymbals and drum heads for an added layer of resonance. Often using his hands as well as an array of sticks and brushes, and at one point he wielded his sticks like chopsticks while his fingers beat a tattoo on his snare. Mason provided a solid fulcrum, with one passage of chiming consonance between pizzicato bass and piano particularly fixing in the memory.
Towards the close of a fourth piece, Roberts introduced the band over a smoothly accelerating pulse. Her palpable delight at being in London in such a supportive setting translated into a first set of almost 90 minutes. After the interval, they resumed with a spirited reading of "Exchange" from the Chicago Project, with the strong group vibe suggesting that there were more highlights to come. Sadly, I had to leave at this point to catch the last train home, narrowly avoiding a disturbing impasse between demonstrators and police en route. One consolation was that the concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3, so the evening's music, including hopefully the remainder of the second set, from this impressive talent in the ascendant may garner the wider appreciation it deserves.