Matana Roberts prefers an epic canvas. Mississippi Moonchile is the second of what will be a dozen chapters in her Coin Coin project, which is named after a freed slave and businesswoman in Louisiana during the 18th Century. It is the vehicle through which Roberts, a Chicago native in her early 30s, mines the history of race and gender in America and weaves it with her own family lineage. She is a saxophonist and a composer who works in sound collages as much as song, and her pieces are evocative and cinematic, but intensely musical nonetheless.
Roberts composed Mississippi Moonchile with her New York-based sextet in mind, a downsizing from the 16-pieces that performed the opening chapter of Coin Coin, entitled Gens de Couleur Libre. The 18 songs on Moonchile are generally less melodramatic, but no less riveting, than the material on Libre. Roberts’s collage approach is often compared to a sonic quilt, but the texture of the sounds and songs are as much shiny tile as worn cloth, creating a dazzling mosaic of rich delta blues, free jazz (Roberts is a member of Chicago’s AACM collective), opera, spoken word and, most of all, gospel. The narrative arc provides more cohesion as it unfurls, rewarding straight-through listening.
The three lead instruments are Roberts’s alto sax, the trumpet of Jason Palmer and the operatic tenor vocals of Jeremiah Abiah. There are chants, vamps, swoons and declamations from each, as well as scampering piano from Shoko Nagai, all backed by the impressive rhythm section of drummer Tomas Fujiwara and bassist Thomson Kneeland. Three of the songs are folk forms, the rest Roberts originals. It is hard to single out specific tracks from the whole, but “Secret Covens” wonderfully implies both freedom and danger, and “Amma Jerusalem School,” “Was The Sacred Day” and “Thanks Be You,” all benefit from Roberts’s spoken-word recitation from the diaries of her grandmother, the “moonchile” of the title.
Mississippi Moonchile, and the entire Coin Coin project, is obviously not meant for mass appeal. Yet, at the risk of overhype, it is a kindred spirit to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in its devotion to larger forces at play, and in the self-assurance of its storytelling. It is, in other words, spiritual music.