Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis (Constellation)

Matana Roberts

Released October 18, 2019

Jazzwise Top 20 Releases of 2019

Allmusic Favorite Jazz Albums 2019




Matana Roberts returns with the fourth chapter of her extraordinary Coin Coin series — a project that has deservedly garnered the highest praise and widespread critical acclaim for its fierce aesthetic originality and unflinching narrative power. The first three Coin Coin albums, issued from 2011-2015, charted diverse pathways of modern/avant composition — Roberts calls it “panoramic sound quilting” — and ranged sequentially from large band to sextet to solo, unified by Roberts’ archival and often deeply personal research into legacies of the American slave trade and ancestries of American identity/experience. Roberts also emphasizes non-male subjects and thematizes these other-gendered stories with a range of vocal and verbal techniques: singspeak, submerged glossolalic recitation, guttural cathartic howl, operatic voice, gentle lullaby, group chant, and the recuperation of various American folk traditionals and spirituals, whether surfacing in fragmentary fashion or as unabridged set-pieces. The root of this vocality comes from her dedication to the legacy of her main chosen instrument, the alto saxophone.

On Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis, Roberts convened a new band, with New Yorkers Hannah Marcus (guitars, fiddle, accordion) and percussionist Ryan Sawyer (Thurston Moore, Nate Wooley, Cass McCombs) joined by Montréal bassist Nicolas Caloia (Ratchet
Orchestra) and Montréal-Cairo composer/improviser Sam Shalabi (Land Of Kush, Dwarfs Of East Agouza) on guitar and oud, along with prolific trombonist Steve Swell and vibraphonist Ryan White as special guests. Memphis unspools as a continuous work of 21st century liberation music, oscillating between meditative incantatory explorations, raucous melodic themes, and unbridled free-improv suites, quoting archly and ecstatically from various folk traditions along the way. Led by Roberts’ conduction and unique graphic score practice, her consummate saxophone and clarinet playing, and punctuated by her singing and speaking various texts generated from her own historical research and diaristic writings, Coin Coin Chapter Four is a glorious and spellbinding new instalment in this projected twelve-part Gesamtkunstwerk.

Says Roberts: “As an arts adventurer dealing w/ the medium of sound and its many contradictions I am most interested in endurance, perseverance, migration, liberation, libation, improvisation and the many layers of cognitive dissonance therein as it relates to my birth country’s history. I speak memory, I sing an american survival through horn, song, sadness, a sometimes gladness. I stand on the backs of many people, from so many different walks of life and difference, that never had a chance to express themselves as expressively as I have been given the privilege. In these sonic renderings, I celebrate the me, I celebrate the we, in all that it is now, and all that is yet to come or will be… Thanks for listening.”

Track Listing:

1. Jewels of the Sky: Inscription (Matana Roberts) 01:48

2. As Far as Eyes Can See (Matana Roberts) 04:03

3. Trail of the Smiling Sphinx (Matana Roberts) 09:43

4. Piddling (Matana Roberts) 02:29

5. Shoes of Gold (Matana Roberts) 03:07

6. Wild Fire Bare (Matana Roberts) 05:41

7. Fit to Be Tied (Matana Roberts) 02:41

8. Her Mighty Waters Run (Matana Roberts) 04:57

9. All Things Beautiful (Matana Roberts) 02:30

10. In the Fold (Matana Roberts) 03:16

11. Raise Yourself Up (Matana Roberts) 02:44

12. Backbone Once More (Matana Roberts) 00:51

13. How Bright They Shine (Matana Roberts) 02:50


Matana Roberts: alto sax, clarinet, wordspeak, voice

Hannah Marcus: electric guitar, nylon string guitar, fiddle, accordion, voice

Sam Shalabi: electric guitar, oud, voice

Nicholas Coloia: doouble bass, voice

Ryan Sawyer: drumset, vibraphone, jaw harp, bells, voice


Steve Swell: trombone, voice

Ryan White: vibraphone

Thierry Amar: voice

Nadia Moss: voice

Jessica Moss: voice

Recorded at Break Glass Studios, Montréal, Québec

Recorded by Jace Lasek

Assistant Engineer: Dave Smith

Mixed by Radwan Moumneh

Mastered by Harris Newman 


The fourth installment in Matana Roberts’ ambitious meditation on African-American history and folklore focuses on the city of Memphis “unlike a place I have yet 2 know”, according to the artist. Regardless of the inspiration that Roberts has drawn from the location, her treatment of the subject maintains the high standards set by the previous work. Firstly, her meshing of sung vocal and spoken word is compelling, primarily because the stories, detailing anything from family testimony to the black church experience, are so vivid. When Roberts confides that “memory is a most unusual thing”, she is really homing in on the heart and soul of the project, and it is to her credit that the complexity of the subject matter has been matched by the intricacy of the composing and arranging.

The strikingly wide timbral spectrum features the ecstatic ricochet of a jaw harp, rabble-rousing country-blues fiddle riffs, occasional Ornetteish breakdowns and instrumental interludes that are consistently imaginative, none more so than during an utterly haunting movement of vibraphone and percussion that sounds like wind chimes running backwards. Yet, for all the moments of gripping abstraction, it is the heart-stirring a capella gospel staples, ‘Her Mighty Waters Run’ (‘Roll The Old Chariot’) and ‘This Little Light Of Mine’, which also prove to be hugely impactful. Roberts’ ability to treat such demanding, multi-layered material with a clear focus is a testament to the strength of her original vision and skill as a narrator. With her core quintet, in which guitarist-fiddler Hannah Marcus stands out, being joined by an array of guests that also includes four vocalists, the music, in lesser hands, could easily have become overblown if not diffuse. Roberts has kept her conceptual focus and creative engine finely tuned to deliver work that has structural invention and a deep poignancy that should move anybody interested in real lives. 

Kevin Le Gendre (Jazzwise)