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Matana Roberts: The Chicago Project

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Anyone who has ever seen Matana Roberts live knows the intensity and devotion that go into her music. The saxophonist rarely speaks before a Performance; the crowd enters and, from the moment the first note is sounded, a focused intensity pervades the room. This devotional quality carries over into her diverse catalogue as a leader, imbuing even the serene moments on albums like The Chicago Project with a frenetic lyricism.

As one of the youngest faces in the AACM—and one of the most important voices in the formerly Chicago-centric organization's New York division—Roberts is intent on continuing the Association's iconoclastic legacy. Her playing throughout The Chicago Project is deeply indebted to Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman and Fred Anderson (who appears on three tracks) but stops well short of reproduction. On "Thrills," Roberts' acerbic alto is a declarative counterpoint to the infectiously catchy theme carried by guitarist Jeff Parker, before a down-home bass riff from Josh Abrams throws the whole performance into tumult. Roberts and Parker submit to Abrams, flirting with the blues and transitioning seamlessly to the original theme in a group improvisation that masterfully blurs stylistic lines.

As compelling as Roberts' saxophone playing is throughout the session, her ability to vary things compositionally leads to some of the most interesting moments on the disc. "Exchange is a collage of improvisations linked by simple melodies and themes that push to an inevitable denouement. Her searing, emotive lines are contrasted first by Parker, whose warbling textures and grating effects soar over the leader's furious mid-register and then by Abrams, who bows long, doleful strains against Roberts' subtle lead into the final melodic fragment.

The main success of The Chicago Project and Roberts' music in general is the compelling balance struck between reverence for the past and an unflinching devotion to the present. In a series of duets with Anderson and on the theme to "Love Call —a melody that bares more than a passing resemblance melodically and stylistically to Coltrane's "Dear Lord —Roberts acknowledges the past, but never in a way that subverts her forward-looking music.

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

Personnel: Matana Roberts: saxophone; Josh Abrams: bass; Jeff Parker: guitar; Frank Rosaly: drums; Fred Anderson: tenor saxophone.

Title: The Chicago Project | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: Constellation

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