There’s a particular kind of artistic experience that can leave the audience so profoundly affected that they’re reluctant to undergo it again. Think of films like Grave of the Fireflies or Requiem for a Dream, or music like Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, or books like From Hell. Saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts’ album, COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres is the first in an ambitious twelve-part work-in-progress exploring history and memory. About halfway through, I worried it would be one of these experiences. I needn’t have. I’ve listened to the album four times in the six weeks since I bought it.
In large part, that’s down to the last track, How Much Would You Cost. Written for Roberts’ mother, it’s a touching tribute, as cool, clean, and clear as fresh water. It’s a quiet moment of true catharsis, peaceful and unashamedly familial. There are other character moments in the album, but this, recorded shortly after her mother’s passing, is the most personal.
If the destination is peaceful, the journey is anything but. From the alarming opening solo, the album swings wildly between moods and styles, tracks bleeding freely into one another. In the second track, Pov Piti, gentle, modal chords are interrupted by strangled, guttural vocalisations that coalesce in primal screams before settling back to cool urban melodies. The next track, Song for Eulalie, follows Pov Piti without a break, the dirge-like strings at the close broken by boppy big band-style piano and drums, which are slowly overtaken by wild, free interjections, before it’s all swept aside by softly strained electric guitars.
In both cases, these changes all happen inside two minutes.
For all the sharp turns of most of the album, its cold heart is the track Libation for Mr Brown: Bid ’Em In. It’s the most consistent track on the album, and, harmonically, the warmest, a gently swinging choral spiritual. I defy you not to sing or move with it, even after you’ve realised that you’re listening to a slave auction.
That chills. Your body ignores your revulsion to the matter, and is carried along in the beauty of the melody. To be seduced by something so repellant and to become aware of it, and to come again and again under its sway is a powerful injunction: injustice sometimes seduces. To resist, we must stay alert.
Bid ’Em In is followed by a track called Lulla/Bye, which combines elements of lullaby and lament. These types of juxtaposition—of mood in Bid ’Em In and of style in Lulla/Bye—are the album’s most potent force. That may be what makes How Much Would You Cost so powerful: after almost an hour of shifting moods and harrowing stories; after the powerful dénouement in the penultimate track, I Am, in which the narrator speaks defiantly of her success in rebuilding her family after being freed from slavery, this gentle calinda is nothing other than what it seems.
The playing on the album, by a sizeable ensemble of Roberts’ friends and collaborators from the Montreal jazz and improv scene, is as tight and variegated as it needs to be. But it’s Roberts’ own playing, on alto sax, that stays in the memory. The saxophone has a reputation as a sweet instrument, but in Roberts’ hands it’s more salt than sugar, sharp, incisive, and clear. In Pov Piti, her grooves cut through the dissonance like a knife. She uses her voice beautifully too, sitting often between song and speech, narrating a passage rapidly then stretching a vowel to its limit:
My master was ruler of the land, governor. He was of Natchitoches, where I was born and baptised in the Ca-tho-lic Church. The Father, the Son, and the Ho-o-o-o-o- Ly Ghost.
Gens de Couleur Libres is only the first part of twelve, and the next two chapters have since been released—one in 2013 and one in 2015. It’s an incredibly expansive project, at the same time both personal and historical. If Roberts keeps pace, COIN COIN will be a quarter-century’s worth of album releases, so a significant part of her life’s work (though she’s released and continues to release other work). It’s a powerful artistic statement, an emotional and psychological journey from pain to catharsis. And it does what a first chapter should: it tells a whole story that’s the start of a bigger one.