New York- and Europe-based Matana Roberts is an award-winning saxophonist, writer, composer, bandleader, and sound-experimentalist and mixed-media practitioner.
She works in many contexts and mediums, including improvisation, dance, poetry, and theater. She is best known as the creator of the multi-volume conceptual work Coin Coin. Begun in 2006 (the same year she issued her self-titled debut album, a jazz set with Chicago luminaries including Joshua Abrams, Jeff Parker, and Frank Rosaly), the projected 12-part work of "panoramic sound quilting" aims to expose the mystical roots and channel the intuitive spirit-raising traditions of American creative expression while maintaining a deep and substantive engagement with narrativity, history, community, and political expression within improvisatory musical structures. Its first volume, Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres appeared in 2011 and was followed by subsequent chapters Mississippi Moonchile and River Run Thee in 2013 and 2015 respectively. After a four-year break during which she performed live, taught, and contributed to recordings by others, she returned with Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis during the fall of 2019.
Roberts was born and raised on the south side of Chicago to parents who had come through the radical changes brought on by the civil rights, political, and anti-war struggles of the 1960s. They exposed her, from a very young age, to arts, culture, and politics, from the established to the radical. Roberts began her musical training at the age of seven in the city's public school system. She studied clarinet, violin, and bassoon. At the age of 16, under the tutelage of bassist Reginald Willis, she began to study the saxophone and improvisation. It was an immersive experience that changed the course of her life. She was a full participant in Chicago's myriad music and art scenes. As a musician, she played with experimental rock, Latin R&B, and jazz acts. She was also an avid writer who began self-publishing 'zines and tracts, and participated in the theater community by composing and performing music. Another early influence was saxophonist, composer, and owner of the famed Velvet Lounge, Fred Anderson.
Along with drummer Chad Taylor and bassist Josh Abrams, she formed the trio Sticks & Stones. Their self-released debut was issued in 2002, followed by Shed Grace for Thrill Jockey in 2004. She began gigging, working with other players, and establishing herself as a session and live player. In 2005, she began to work on composing and workshopping the Coin Coin cycle. She also worked with the Burnt Sugar collective, as well as William Parker and rock groups including Godspeed! You Black Emperor and TV on the Radio. In 2006, she self-released her first date as a leader, Lines for Lacy, followed by The Calling in 2007.
In 2008, Roberts saw the release of her quartet offering, The Chicago Project, on Barry Adamson's Central Control label. The set was produced by Vijay Iyer. This was followed by international touring and other collaborations, including her appearance on Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra's Kollaps Tradixionales. After witnessing a performance of Coin Coin Chapter One with her Montreal ensemble, that city's Constellation label approached her about making a record. She proposed her multi-volume Coin Coin project; they agreed without reservation. In February of 2011, her Live in London offering was released by Adamson's label, followed by Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libre in May. The album was universally acclaimed. Following more touring and collaborative work, she released Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile, in October of 2013, the second volume in the 12-part series. The album was selected by numerous media outlets in their year-end album lists.
Roberts spent much of 2014 writing and performing, including a celebrated duet performance with drummer Susie Ibarra at the Stone and as a participant in the 50th anniversary celebration for Terry Riley's In C. Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee was released by Constellation in February of 2015. In May of the following year, she received a Doris Duke Artist Award. In the fall of 2016, Roberts was in residence at the Camargo Foundation in Paris, France, in partnership with Art Matters and the Jerome Foundation, where she developed the fourth chapter of Coin Coin.
After spending several years living on houseboats in Brooklyn -- where she learned to surf -- she began dividing her time residing and working between New York and Europe. Between 2016 and 2018, she performed a musical residency at Park Avenue Armory Veterans room, had an installation at the Fridman Gallery called "Jump at the Sun," that showcased a single mixed-media score while a long-form sound quilt ran in the background, and composed a work for a 30-person mixed chorus in Berlin, using a visual digital score to build. She also she made a rare guest appearance on Deerhoof's Mountain Moves album. In the fall of 2019, she released Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis on which convened a new band, with New Yorkers Hannah Marcus on guitars, fiddle, and accordion, percussionist Ryan Sawyer, Montréal bassist Nicolas Caloia, and Montréal-Cairo composer/improviser/ Sam Shalabi on guitar and oud. Guests included trombonist Steve Swell and vibraphonist Ryan White. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi