Matana Roberts' playing can be anthemic and loud or garrulous, but at its most attractive, it's plainspoken, medium-soft and direct. It's hard not to think of Roberts' sax lines-with their even pacing, unadorned tone save for a light vibrato, formed into short, declarative statements-as some strange extension of classic Midwestern expression. (Roberts began her music career in Chicago with the Sticks & Stones trio, which formed as the house band for Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge club.)
On Shed Grace, their sophomore recording as a trio, Sticks & Stones toss in some noise, as with the free title track, and some longueurs, like the intermittently entertaining clarinet feature "The Refusal." But the most satisfying tracks here feature the trio playing small-scale tunes at easy tempos. Roberts comes across much more successfully as a melodicist than she does as a free player, and she shines in this type of setting.
For examples, look no farther than the delicate "Wordful," something just this side of a dirge. Roberts restricts herself to the melody while supported by bassist Josh Abrams' bow work, leaving all solo space to drummer Chad Taylor. Even on more muscular fare, like "Colonial Mentality"-a piece held together only by Abrams' six-note repeating bass line-Roberts demonstrates her calm, even-tempered delivery. It almost makes sense then, that the band's cover of Monk's "Skippy" falters while their cover of Ellington's "Isfahan" succeeds. Sticks & Stones renders the former barely recognizable, choosing to skip the melody and run right into a disjointed improvisation with hints of the theme sprinkled here and there. On the other hand, "Isfahan," a feature for another saxophonist with a talent for melody, inspires some of Roberts' most purely beautiful playing.