Matana Roberts (pronounced Mah-tah-Na) is a dynamic saxophonist, composer and improviser, whose music exposes the mystical roots and spiritual traditions of African American creative expression. The Chicago Project features her UK band, pianist Robert Mitchell, bassist Tom Mason and drummer Chris Vatalaro. Recorded live at the Vortex Jazz Club in early 2009 by BBC Radio 3, Ms Roberts takes you on an autobiographical tale of her music heritage, peers and future. In front of a sold out crowd, on no rehearsal, and with recording equipment filling the last available space of the room, Roberts required the band to deliver on knife-edge tension and inspiration. And as Live In London proves they delivered in droves pooling from their wealth of soul and experience. Press acclaim for Matana Roberts and The Chicago Project: Could this be the woman to sell good, old-fashioned American avant-jazz to the masses? The first essential release of the year. The London Times 4/5 This soulful, wordless homage to the Windy City showcases her fiery yet fluid tone - MOJO 4/5 The talent-in-waiting should wait no longer with this very impressive debut Echoes 4/5 The Windy City's twin traditions of free jazz and post-rock are celebrated in this stunning debut The Independent "Ms. Roberts isn't just mildly curious to expand her medium: She seems driven to do it." - New York Times "Not to be missed, The Chicago Project is an early contender for one of the best records of 2008." - All About Jazz "Roberts is a fluid, elegant player who rejects the star soloist approach of many a saxophonist." - BBC Jazz "With dreadlocks piled high, and accompanied by a three-piece outfit that included a fabulous jazz drummer who occasionally appeared to be having a fit, Roberts flitted between manic bursts of improvised music and serenely beautiful set pieces." The London Times (live review) Live In London shows to support the release: March 4th - Live In London - band show feat. Robert Mitchell and Tom Mason, Southbank Centre, London. March 7th - Matana Roberts / Seb Rochford duo show - Cafe Oto, London.
Composition and improvisation are the essential twin pillars of jazz. The first is story, the second is saga; an extension, if not reconstruction, of a sonic building. Being able to write and solo with enough ingenuity to make the original musical architecture then lean into an eye-catching new shape is the genre’s creative summit. However, something else to bear in mind is the ability to create atmospheres, moods, colours and nuance; to sometimes play around the song before it crystallizes in earnest, which is one of the reasons why pieces can stretch to 10 or more minutes.
Alto saxophonist Matana Roberts did as much on her 2008 debut The Chicago Project, a stirring tribute to her ville natale, and on this concert performance from what could be her ville d’adoption, she goes deeper into that territory, playing lengthy, absorbing arrangements that are really suites emboldened by a well-handled rise and fall of tension. Her London accompanists – drummer Chris Vatalaro, double bassist Tom Mason and pianist Robert Mitchell – prove simpatico partners in their hair-trigger responsiveness and individual flourish, but it is Roberts’ poised command that defines this 2009 session at the Vortex.
She doesn’t rush ideas into being. She often plays yearning, heraldic motifs that are steeped in blues, but she also embraces some of the eastern scalar trickery beloved of Kenny Garrett. Time and time again, there are grippingly plaintive fanfares in which Roberts’ lithe yet robust tone prods at a melodic figure while her band members endeavour to make the rhythmic accompaniment as malleable as possible. In the best cases, as in My Sistr, the result is a stream of glistening, glow worm sounds with a controlled turbulence bubbling underneath.
What is called the avant-garde has deployed such strategies since the 60s, but Roberts’ work reveals the natural bridges between that school and post-bop by sliding from liquid, rubtao passages into flighty swing with no loss of narrative thread. There is a restless but disciplined effervescence in Roberts’ playing that loosely recalls adventurous spirits like Oliver Lake, but Live In London confirms a fast-maturing individuality.
--Kevin Le Gendre
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