Matana Roberts took a furlough from her long-running, ongoing blood narrative Coin Coin to present some new music at Roulette last night -- a suite called "New York Stories," performed by Roberts, Vijay Iyer (piano), Liberty Ellman (guitar), Thomas Morgan (bass), and Damion Reid (drums). (Tenor saxophonist JD Allen was also on the bill but could not appear due to a last-minute tour conflict.) The music sounds patient, varied, organically freeflowing with plenty of room to breathe... but achieving that effect in a musically satisfying way usually takes a bit of work.
What separates Matana from a lot of her peers -- beyond her balls-to-the-wall commitment, a virtue which is already far-too-scarse -- is her attention to shaping the details of her music in the service of a larger structure. Those details may be fairly loosely specified, but they are specified. I stole a few quick glances at the written parts for "New York Stories" after the gig -- there's a lot of graphic notation involved, with glyphs for "density w/space," "non-tonal texture," "lock in," etc., as well as passages of notated music that can be read in the clef of the player's choice. (Which in this context is realistically going to be either treble or bass -- jazz musicians don't really rock the C-clefs.) There's also an overall structural plan for the piece, with many repeated and cued sections mapped out in advance.
The music included a lot of satisfying timbral variety: the full ensemble was deployed sparingly, and there were many stripped-down moments -- solos, duos, and trios in various instrumental configurations. These were (subtly) cued on the fly by the composer. The upshot is that the judicious deployment of all of these techniques affords Matana the ability to exert ownership over this music. This isn't to denigrate the sensitive, spontaneous interplay amongst all of these great improvising musicians -- but Matana's "New York Stories" are clearly her own.
More photos below the fold...