The Poetry Project

Fit to be tied is an arrangement / Matana Roberts at Roulette Intermedium, Nov. 17, 2019

benjamin krusling

What’s going on with jazz and its influence now? All the artists that have lived and binged and processed decades of hip-hop, jazz, and impossibility are sending signals out again and again with new leaps in Black sound. It’s one of the few things I feel consistently good about: Earl Sweatshirt’s latest exercises in density, swirl, and ellipsis on Some Rap Songs and Feet of Clay – see: dark face on the news/clouds grey on the move/on the way like the truth or living life like a nigga put a price on my head – who else is making music this precise about fear and courage? Slauson Malone’s A Quick Farwell…, cut from similar shifting cloth, which proceeds in short bursts of looped sound and speculation and, to my sensibility, represents a leap forward in what we might call post-representational Black art (Slauson Malone: “nowhere is also like a where”). Or South London musician Klein’s Lifetime, which, among other techniques, flips marching band drumlines and vast expanses of twitch, silence, and processed screech, speak and song into voluminous events in sound and code.

All these artists, in their own ways, are playing fast and loose with repetition and the cut (see, among others, James Snead’s “Repetition as a figure in black culture”), with the meaning that Black sound encodes and describes. They all, to me, approximate something like the truth, which we who try constantly fight to reestablish through the spray of phenomena and the weight of historical violence. All of these albums, in their exploratory way, in their difficulty, tell me something good is brewing in Black music, stirring something new in me. I could go on!

One thing I want to say: we’re not done with what jazz has to offer! (I have heard people say otherwise.) And I’m interested in working through plainly, bodily, what I like and think about this music, without recourse to experts or anticipatory frameworks. I’m just a Black person interested in the sounds some Black people are making — they give me a reason to live.

Which brings me to saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts. I saw Roberts play at Roulette in November. (Do you know Roulette Intermedium? Amiri Baraka used to read with jazz accompaniment there back when they were still downtown, before rising rents led them to Downtown Brooklyn. Wadada Leo Smith has premiered work there.) She was there with her band — including Kyp Malone, of TV on the Radio and Rain Machine, on guitar and Grammy-nominated bassist and singer Meshell Ndegeocello — to run through the latest installment of her Coin Coin series, subtitled Memphis, a projected 12-part sequence of “panoramic sound quilting” that mines the archives of non-male Black life in America for its muse and propulsion. I didn’t know her music top to bottom, but I had been interested in Coin Coin and excited to see its latest development.

The band’s performance, true to the album which it closely resembles, began in galloping blue-black entropy and rarely settled into anything like a groove or hook or plateau — it was a rolling ball of tension, ball lightning moving through a black room, giving off sparks as sub-ecstatic shout, or pealing saxophone here, or a sudden wiling fiddle there. It blared and bleated and hurled resolution somewhere out of time and out of pocket. Hearing the band rumble to life, I thought how this was the opposite of easy listening — how it was not cool jazz, in every sense of that word. Snatches of old folk music and blues and jazz standards, like “St. Louis Blues,” would gradually, then quickly, emerge from the purple-gray haze of drum rolls, approach something like swing and cohesion, then spiral into the next movement or into a percolating interlude of narrative speech and song.

Roberts herself has a soothing gravitas — she is a collected, assuring bandleader, even when she broke into the ululations and sing-speak that threaded the performance. And, in that composure, there was a kind of signal, something intellectual, conceptual — gestures presenting themselves to be read. I suppose what I’m trying to tease out here is something about the affective register of this performance — and I suppose in the album itself — that felt at once composed and choreographed. As in, each piece felt sorted into its proper place in the arrangement, and what sounded improvised or chaotic or wild also and at once had an air of control around it, some rails along the outer ring of the vibration.

The Coin Coin series takes its name from Roberts’ once-enslaved ancestor Marie Thérèse Coincoin and Memphis, in particular, channels her maternal grandmother whose mugshot graces the album cover, and Liddie, a “wo(e)man chile in [her] coincoin bloodline.” She’s interested in “impression and abstraction, as well as a certain cognitive dissonance” (in reading, I heard another reverberation of Earl: cognitive dissonance shattered and the necessary venom restored from new single “East”). So, maybe what I mean is that Roberts’ performance often approximated something more like sound design than music per se — or that, in its collagist, archival methodology, Roberts and her band had something of the documentarian’s sober touch even as they deployed the swing and body of jazz and blues, even as she broke into glossolaliac yelps and hollers. It’s a question of degrees — hot and cold, head and body, past and present — and this strange irreconcilable mass that Roberts makes of them.

Which insight brought me to Earl, Slauson Malone and Klein — all younger musicians who, though they’re closer to the club than the Roulette grant (but maybe not much), and though, even with the use of live instrumentation, sound like what the digital audio workstation makes possible, have a similar ontological preoccupation with the present, and how stirring up and painting with the past activates it. Not to collapse the differences between all these musicians — what differentiates Roberts precisely from them is the degree to which, to my ear, the music invites and requires a certain degree of active contemplation on the listener’s part. And where artists like Slauson Malone express anxiety over the very nature of an “archive” (“I would really kind of fight you hard against the word archive because it kind of implies that the ideas are dead or no longer with us. So I don’t really consider it like that”), Roberts’ whole project has a formal interest in what happens when older sound and speech is reimagined and recombined, played and recorded live by a group of musicians.

Roberts’ music is hauntological — Memphis in particular sees Roberts’ taking on Liddie’s persona as she glances off memories of her parents’ murder by the Klan — My last glimpse was seeing her candy-colored skin lit up by that bright hot light. But before that, we hear Liddie’s mother, through Roberts-as Liddie-as Liddie’s mother, sing: I got shoes, they got shoes, everybody’s got shoes/ When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes/ I’m gonna walk all over that heaven.

This is music with life on its mind. Even as jazz standards and voices and saxophone and fiddle bubbled out of the cauldron of sounds and references to which she applied surface and heat, even as soft guitar plucks nosed their way in and quickly disintegrated into the ensemble, Roberts still ended the performance with song, with chant, with a participatory round that she recruited the audience to: We’ll roll that old chariot along (which, in truth, in an audience that was visibly, if not mostly white, was an odd, slightly discomforting note that I don’t have the space for here. Suffice to say, there is a larger conversation to be had about what happens under the rubric of participation or play when too many white people get together to enjoy Black music).

Okay, what I think I want to say is that there is something held at a distance by this music and that distance is transferred to the listener. Its gestures have a kind of sacred ring around them. OR what I want to ask about Roberts’ performance is something about the nature of ghosts and innovation in Black art. I have wept to music and performance — I don’t know if Roberts’ music, though it takes anti-blackness’s long, brutal pall as its concern and Liddie’s traumatic memory as its narrative, is all that interested in tears. There was altogether something more pugilistic (see: Roberts’ grandmother’s defiant mugshot on the album cover) about the music — and its eyes are decidedly aimed upward.

With Coin Coin, Roberts has created a vast field of possibility wherein the past is performed and reperformed again and again with a propulsive circularity — it’s the sound of music thinking about itself as it kicks and wails to tell us truth is on the way. It’s too active to be meditative, nearly restless in its heterogeneity of approach.

In the last few years, I’ve begun to distrust many forms of narrative and poetry that presume to manufacture anything like stability. Grand narratives are over! But all of these artists — Roberts, Earl, Klein, Slauson Malone — really blow me away with the scale of their ambition that wrangles and animates all kinds of Black archival presence and honors it through shift, tumble and insightful juxtaposition. Where I’ve got to is thinking that all these artists have a willingness to enter into the scene of unknowing, where all these lives and stories and ways of being, surviving, and thriving, enter into the psychojumble of presence we call consciousness. And I like to be overwhelmed by consciousness.

#260 — Feb/March/April 2020