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2019 Highlight: Matana Roberts

There is an unearthly quality about the sound of alto saxophonist Matana Roberts. Her supranatural cry takes you back to Ornette Coleman, to Charlie Parker to the streets, to the river, to the land, places only she knows and yet somehow we can sense …

Published: 9 Dec 2019. Updated: 7 months.

There is an unearthly quality about the sound of alto saxophonist Matana Roberts. Her supranatural cry takes you back to Ornette Coleman, to Charlie Parker to the streets, to the river, to the land, places only she knows and yet somehow we can sense the haunting terrain. Her poetry is of the saxophone and also springs from words themselves uttered from her mouth taken from her writings.

Her Coin Coin project is as much history and sociology as it is music as her vision embraces much beyond the wail of the saxophone and the notes on the page. She manages to draw on punk, on rock, a sense of Indian music too and much else with the connotation of the blues never far away. But above all on a highly abstract collage sound that slaps clusters on clusters and darts between atonality, the fractured universe explored for decades by the AACM as one input, and a pantonal world of melody and rhythmic jolt that is as much paint on a canvas as notes in the air.

With guitarist-oudist Sam Shalabi, the multi-instrumentalist Hannah Marcus, drummer Ryan Sawyer, and bassist Nicolas Caloia plus some stellar guests notably the great, trombone icon, Steve Swell chipping in, she is in a universe where sounds flick back and forth in unexpected ways. A world of remnants and folk memory and yet the tramlines of the structures of the improvisations are always sketched out, rusting and warped.

Her approach is not one of easy answers: a rubbing out of bebop and then an imposition of new sounds on top of the remants with Memphis in her mind's eye and a bird's eye vision of its mythic present and searing past where the voice of the poet one we should be paying heed to but more a voice in the wilderness included in the panorama. A saga of cinematic scope. The story is not fully told yet what an achievement Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis is and further listening can only enlarge upon its array of detail.

Stephen Graham

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Labels of the year in 2019

December 2019 update. This small survey touches on a number of things, it is not just about the labels who have put out great records although that is often the case. The main point to begin with is that there are many jazz labels out there and …

Published: 9 Dec 2019. Updated: 7 months.

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December 2019 update. This small survey touches on a number of things, it is not just about the labels who have put out great records although that is often the case. The main point to begin with is that there are many jazz labels out there and quite a few are completely invisible to even scene watchers like marlbank. So for instance Jazz Sick records, who knew?

Some things however do not change and stories go deeper. For the big labels this year Blue Note and ECM celebrated anniversaries. In Blue Note's case their 80th, in ECM's actually officially the label began on 1 January 1970 but the anniversary is marked by when the first recording was made which was a few weeks earlier, its 60th.

Neither have had bumper years but Blue Note is doing something interesting in reaching out more and more to the new generation of vinyl collectors and by signing such new artists as Joel Ross rather than resting on their laurels as the greatest collector label of them all. ECM continues to release quality albums extremely regularly however once again Keith Jarrett scored most spectacularly with the Munich 2016 release exceeding every expectation appealing to even the most jaded Jarrett fan surely.

The UK's Edition has started building a list of high profile Americans on the label including Chris Potter, Jeff Ballard and The Bad Plus. However for me it was a home grown talent Liam Noble who scored best.

Nowadays most top indie labels put out example tracks or even the whole album on Bandcamp and an audio version on YouTube and Edition are good at doing this. Labels that do not often lag behind in the pre-release publicity race and then crucially the period when the circus moves on, a couple of weeks after release: they still keep releases properly visible for later adopters. And speaking of which reviews of albums in big media outlets are now practically invisible even within specialist music sections. Italian label Camjazz continues to have an interest in UK jazz (in the past releasing records by John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler) and their Huw Warren and Mark Lockheart release New Day was superb. Hopefully they will increase their roster in the coming years looking towards Albion again.

Some UK artists have discovered new labels to put out their records and for Pulled by Magnets, the new Seb Rochford band, the non-jazz Tak.Til is their home. Only a single so far. Sadly Jellymould had no output this year but Lyte came back a a little with a good Jean Toussaint release. Babel had a good second half of the year after a dormant first with Loredana by Emilia Mårtensson their best jazz vocals release in many years. Kino trio got little publicity but would be my pick of their small number of releases overall although I did not like the way the album was mastered and for that matter engineered so a lot of interesting passages got lost in the level and at source. Gearbox had big signings in Abdullah Ibrahim and Dwight Trible but 2019 was not a banner year in terms of profile although they remain the label with the finest sound anywhere.

Once again the majors were fairly unimpressive in terms of imagination. Okeh via Sony failed to deliver on its earlier promise and their main executive has departed. Universal signed Melt Yourself Down in one wayward if well-meaning effort but allotted most of their energy in terms of UK push in marketing the novelty tinklings of showbiz film star/pianist Jeff Goldblum. On the Warners side Nonesuch keep to their tried and tested big name artists for the large part. Only the massive operation that is Concord, expecially when it came to Chick Corea and Hiromi releases, kept it real (meaning that the indie feel somehow is kept intact even when the label heart happens to reside more clicking on a Powerpoint at business school than were it should be transplanted to: the jazz club).

Most hype of all went to Jazz:Refreshed which often impressed although only in a small area, the clubby-jazz DJ oriented space which can be very lightweight or just really party jazz friendly but usually grabs a lot of headlines and from their point of view happily sales. Seed Ensemble however achieved positive profile via their Mercury nomination and Driftglass certainly was a solid 2019 highlight. Brownswood again succeeds in appealing to younger audiences and benefits from Gilles Peterson's massive media profile often bigged up on his radio show and via his live events. Rarenoise had a very quiet year while Whirlwind only had a few records to get excited about (Partisans' vibrant Nit de Nit was the pick).

Best of all of any UK label however was the growing uniformity and quality of Martin Hummel and Quentin Collins' Ubuntu and especially zoning in their Rob Luft-Dave O'Higgins-Scott Flanigan-Rod Youngs Monk and Trane release that was a joy even bearing in mind that it comes from a non fashionable end of the jazz spectrum, the heart of the ''modern mainstream'' tapping into classic repertory when many jazzers marlbank included prefer original composition with a non-repertory outlook. To clarify: standards have their place as a jumping-off point; for creative commons on the bandstand; and crucially as a cue for re-composition polished and reborn in the moment. O'Higgins proved himself in the form of his life.

In the digital age label brand identity is not as important as it was any more because the Internet has created a more level playing field in terms of presentation. Maybe we will just be scouring the credits for producers rather than labels in the future especially when and it is often the case multinational record companies buy up historic indie names and market them without the love and affection their founders intended and really only come into their own via their powerful distribution arms. SG