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Matana Roberts: The Chicago Project

Mark F. Turner By

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Matana Roberts
The Chicago Project
Central Control International
2008

Whether or not you believe in reincarnation, saxophonist/composer Matana Roberts, sounds as if she's been here before. You can hear it in her voice, a definite tonality, a lyrical spiritual essence that recalls the voices of reed players Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy, and others—one of profound soulfulness, passion and purity. Yet the embodiment of Roberts is devoid of mimicry or pretense, because she possesses her own identity as revealed on The Chicago Project.

Roberts, a member of AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), who has served on the faculty of SIM (School For Improvised Music), is joined by equally progressive-minded players in her native stomping ground of Chicago. Her quartet includes guitarist Jeff Parker (Chicago Underground Trio, Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble), bassist Josh Abrams (Josh Abrams Quartet) and drummer Frank Rosaly (Ken Vandermark). As far as modern jazz is concerned, the nine selections on the recording are cognizant of its history, but represent a current view of the genre, touching the corners of post-bop, avant-garde, free jazz, and Roberts' own bright ideas.

Produced by pianist Vijay Iyer, another young music idealist, the recording is a clear demonstration of Roberts' playing and composing abilities, wherein there are moments of brilliance, the execution of a superb young band, and music that has much feeling. The selections feature the saxophonist's original material with the quartet and three duo tracks with the esteemed elder statesman and a founding AACM member, saxophonist Fred Anderson.

"Exchange" moves through many waters: abstract, blues, modal, and swing, opening with anguished wails from Roberts' alto, then syncopated, doubling bass and drums, and multiple changes. It sounds and feels like the music of yesterday and today, a timeless traveling through the paths of backwoods or urban streets.

Next is the more accessible "Thrills," with its circuitous pattern and shifts between two motifs containing the groove and hard blues. "Nomra," is a lovely and thoughtful ballad where Roberts' fluttering horn shares the melody with Parker's tender, empathetic guitar lines. The track ends with Roberts' voice soaring like a bird in flight.

The sentiments of peace and turmoil are conveyed in "Love Call" as the quartet traverse unsettling improvisations reminiscent of saxophonist John Coltrane's later works. Yet they swing gracefully on "South By West," each voice divergent but unified; Abrams' probing bass solo followed tandem solos by Parker and Roberts. The final quartet track, "For Razi," contains bizarre instruments sounds produced by each musician including Rosaly's wonderful drum solo. The idiosyncrasies of Roberts' writing on this atmospheric piece are like intruding into someone's memories, introspective and intriguing.

The three duo "Birdhouse" tracks are heavenly. The birdsong of Roberts' alto and Anderson's tenor are not just dueling soloists but more of an improvisational dialog between the elder and the younger musician, in a mix of exhilarating free play and interweaving lines.

The Chicago Project will hopefully receive the attention it deserves as a unique and memorable work from an artist whose creative flame burns deep. Good musicians are also good listeners. Roberts has carefully listened to others and has learned. But she's also listening to her inner voice and it will be interesting to hear where she ventures next.


Tracks: Exchange; Thrills; Birdhouse 1; Nomra; Love Call; Birdhouse 2; South By West; For Razi; Birdhouse 3.

Personnel: Matana Roberts: alto saxophone; Josh Abrams: bass; Jeff Parker: guitar; Frank Rosaly: drums; Fred Anderson: tenor saxophone (3, 6, 9).

Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Central Control | Style: Modern Jazz


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