If Coin Coin Chapter One was an eclectic evocation of history as the history of liberty, an ‘activist’ endeavor both individual and collective in the sense given by the great tradition of free jazz, Coin Coin Chapter Two is more of a passive invocation (the album begins with one) of the haunting of such a history in more grounded, specific moments. Where Chapter One explored an eclectic mass of voices in long forms, Two is woven by a smaller ensemble in shorter, interconnected pieces – the first functioned like an industry, like the daily toil of millions coming together only under the wide perspective of an idealist narrative, while the second functions like an artisan workshop embedded in that toil, materializing a daily operation that perpetually dreams of its past. This modified timeframe allows Matana Roberts and her ensemble to develop a tight, expressive set of performances upon popular forms that under the ‘epochal’ vision of One were often completely absorbed, letting the blues and rock and roll shine through, not as part of the free jazz idiom but as irrevocably haunted by it, a revisionist move that lets all sorts of ghosts intone their passions at last.
The invocation could be understood as prayer or conjuration, a call for God as well as a call that brings the past back to life: Roberts uses memories of her grandmother given in an interview to word the singing heard in the second half of the album. As prayer, it connotes the collectivity of suffering as communal repetition, phrases said not once or twice but thrice and more, although they are sung positively, without restraint or sadness, an identity enacted in the wider perspective of a history perhaps no longer of liberty as struggle but as hopeful joy. As conjuration it forms a daily life that passes quickly, full of vernacular encounters codified as swift exchanges between players that speak in melodies and modified jazz standards as much as in a tamed version of avant-garde onslaughts. The result is a compelling kind of jazz that has little patience for aural abstractions, drawing the listener in with its perfectly executed shifts between the more straightforwardly traditional and the (eclectic) new; this is a communal exercise that goes beyond the musicians themselves and acts as a very modern ritual in which individual history and self-understanding are thoroughly expressed.
Perhaps it is in this way that the tenor that sings throughout several of the tracks can be understood, as the haunting voice that melds everything together into a dramatic whole, a micro-history unfolding in 18 acts of everyday events within the context of a wider conflict, a wider hope for a better future that doesn’t deny every bit of the darkness of the past. Its spectral quality is unnerving, and it produces a very interesting contrast with the rest of the instrumentation. In a way it is an inversion of early 20th century (white) exoticist appropriations of jazz, creating a sense of troubled weight that could be counterposed to the raging twenties’ tourist love of a ‘wild and savage’ racket. It is a weight that, as said above, haunts the album, a deeply felt seriousness that infects the positive quality of the music and gives repeated phrases like “There’s some things I just can’t tell you about” an aura of universal history, a hint at the ways in which the everyday builds up into the epochal through both sound and silence.
“Mississippi is a beautiful place”, says the invoked grandmother, and it is a memory closely intertwined with the laments of others, laments perhaps distant to her but irrevocably contemporary, a collage of feelings that results in beauty, for the place is beautiful in its time, one of struggle, one of happiness-in-the-details, one constantly visited by the phantoms of a story that plays the part of neverending beacon, a promise of fundamental levelling that, despite all its modern presentations, has never left its religious dimension behind. It is beautiful because it is, because it directly speaks of people who love and hate and fight and die, because it decidedly constitutes the most worthy of romances.
The album ends with a “Benediction”, a peaceful short collective song as final prayer, a perfect closure to an album which has numerous angles of interpretation and which grows in all directions at once, demanding to be heard time and time again. The ritual finishes, community is restored, and its transcendence comes in the form of understanding, both in self-knowledge and in the wonder of the presence of another, forever underlined by the negation of all claims to possession: as in all the greatest free jazz groups, collaboration is both its sole means and end. Coin Coin Chapter Two is, then, one of this year’s most interesting records, a complex and yet relatable experiment in form/content that will have you thrown deep into thought as much as it will make you want to tap your feet to the bluesy sections. All in all, Matana Roberts’ 12-volume project about African American history is shaping up to be one of the great works of our (short) times. (David Murrieta)