Matana Roberts: Gypsy Woman

Saxophonist Matana Roberts preaches the avant-garde gospel far and wide

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Matana Roberts

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I’m a Gypsy woman by nature,” Matana Roberts says during a walkabout of her Harlem neighborhood. The alto saxophonist and composer has just returned from Europe, where she concluded a brief tour; she will soon be heading out again, this time to the Western U.S. “There are great things going on all over the world in the name of improvisation, and sometimes what happens in New York is that you can get buried in just what’s happening here,” she says. “I want to see what else is out there, what other people are doing.”

Roberts is as restless in art as she is in geography. Born and raised in Chicago, Roberts plays in a way that echoes the avant-garde aesthetic of that city’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), of which she is a member. Specifically, Roberts shares the proclivity of many AACM stalwarts to blend traditional, progressive and free jazz with the blues, European classical music, world folk traditions and performance art—and, in her case, dashes of punk and experimental rock. In her COIN COIN project, a massive, 12-part work in progress, she applies that eclectic style to an epic exploration of ancestry, African-American history, spirituality and memory.

In many ways, it’s the pursuit of this muse that necessitates her Gypsy wanderings. Now in her 30s, Roberts has lived in Harlem for nearly a decade, working frequently as a side musician and sporadically as a leader. However, she says, “I’ve also had to deal with some of the practicalities of trying to make records. I’ve had a really difficult time trying to get American record labels interested in my music.” Her 2008 debut, The Chicago Project, was recorded in the Windy City and released on the British label Central Control International. This spring sees the release of two more albums: Live in London, recorded for CCI with a band Roberts maintains in the U.K., and Gens de Couleur Libres, the first chapter of COIN COIN, recorded in Montreal for the Canadian label Constellation. “These records represent my wanderlust for being a Gypsy,” she explains, “but also the practicality of not being able to make the records that I would like to make where I’m based.”

Of course, it was that same wanderlust that took Roberts from the place where her music would (and does) fit quite comfortably, her hometown. As a child on Chicago’s South Side, Roberts grew up with parents who were radicals, members of the Black Hebrew Israelites movement (“Matana” is a Hebrew name). It was in that context that she was exposed to avant-garde jazz, via her father’s record collection. “There was always some sort of political fervor going on at our home,” she recalls. “And the reason he listened to the music so much is because it was so inspiring in that way.”
He also listened to folk and classical music, however, and it was the latter that first inspired Roberts: When she began learning the clarinet at age 9, her aspiration was to play in an orchestra. But “the saxophone was always thrown at me,” Roberts says. “I had a teacher who insisted that I play saxophone, but I didn’t want to because I kind of associated that instrument with daddy’s music. That teacher ended up giving me a free saxophone, and that’s where it kind of started.” She continued on both instruments until realizing that she was more comfortable, and more distinctive, on the alto.
After receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music—she declines to name the schools, feeling that they haven’t earned her endorsement—Roberts co-founded the collaborative trio Sticks and Stones with bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Chad Taylor, and quickly became a protégé of Chicago’s free-jazz patron saint, Fred Anderson. Roberts, however, soon felt the lure of a wider world. “Why stay somewhere where I’ve been forever, where I was born and raised?” she asks. “For me, it was just really important to go to other places.”

Arriving in New York in 2002, Roberts fought out a hardscrabble existence in the city, busking in the subways for cash and learning to cut corners and live cheaply. The latter still describes her lifestyle in Harlem, though her sacrifices are no longer as drastic—and her artistic successes are largely outside of New York.

Indeed, Roberts has begun to contemplate life outside the Big Apple. “I never moved to New York with the idea that I was going to stay,” she says. “I’m pretty sure I won’t last another decade living under the kind of stress that this city represents.” In the meantime, she will soon begin regular performances in Brooklyn, and tour North America and Europe to play with her Live in London quartet and perform parts of COIN COIN. If Roberts’ dedication to her music compels her to wander the world, it’s the world that benefits.

Originally published in June 2011

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