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Matana Roberts: The Chicago Project

Troy Collins By

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The Chicago Project, a tribute to saxophonist Matana Roberts' hometown, features some of the Windy City's finest players, including guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Josh Abrams, drummer Frank Rosaly and a special guest appearance by veteran tenor saxophonist and fellow AACM member Fred Anderson. Now a resident of New York City, Roberts establishes her Chicago bred lineage with this stunning, forward thinking release.

Roberts' singular style is equally informed by her AACM heritage and the fervent expressionism of the 1960s New Thing, especially the yearning spirituality of John Coltrane. Her emotive phrasing and keening tone is anything but derivative though. She is a fearless writer, balancing accessible melodies and unique arrangements with unconventional instrumental combinations and dense collective improvisations that showcase her quartet's adroit interplay.

Roberts and Parker form an analogous pair, revealing the same deep rapport found in Abrams and Rosaly's empathetic dialogues. Favoring the alto's middle register, Roberts' lyrical intensity burns white hot while Parker provides assorted sonorities, from gauzy filigrees to shards of oscillating electronic feedback.

Abrams and Rosaly navigate Roberts' free-wheeling structures with knowing intuition. Abrams is given ample solo room, invoking the spirit of the great Jimmy Garrison with his stirring, sinewy contributions. Rosaly tempers his brawny, fractured swing with assorted percussion and eloquent restraint.

Embracing the legacy of the AACM, Roberts deftly weaves blues, post-bop and free jazz into multi-hued tapestries that represent their traditional origins while providing direction for the future.

Opening the album with blistering, circuitous fanfare, "Exchange" modulates into a simmering modal vamp. Rising to a fevered pitch, Robert's scorching alto and Parker's jagged chords ride a frenetic rhythmic undertow to a bristling climax.

The aptly titled "Thrills" rides a skittering, pulsating shuffle, alternating between infectious angular counterpoint and a languorous blues groove before expanding into a tumultuous vortex of thorny abstraction.

A solemn ballad, "Nomra" showcases Roberts' tender side with subtle overtones of the avant-garde, an aesthetic that guides the ghostly "For Razi," with its pointillist atmospherics and brief interludes of bittersweet melody. "Love Cry" summons the spiritual intensity of the New Thing, unleashing gnarled testimonials that orbit a peaceful core. Full of buoyant lyricism, the ebullient waltz "South By West" contains a rich bass solo from Abrams and an intimate, unaccompanied duet between Roberts and Parker.

Three variations of "Birdhouse" feature Roberts and Fred Anderson alone, together. Anderson's rough bluesy tenor blends well with Roberts' cutting alto, as the two weave through labyrinthine themes with intricate call-and-response cadences and relaxed, contrapuntal accompaniment.

Female saxophonists are a rarity in jazz, a topic far too weighty to address in the confines of an album review. Matana Roberts eradicates stereotypical notions of gender with a phenomenal performance and winning compositional sense. Not to be missed, The Chicago Project is an early contender for one of the best records of 2008.


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

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

Title: The Chicago Project | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Central Control

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