With roots in Chicago's AACM, alto saxophonist Matana Roberts now bases herself in New York. Although she has an impressive string of recordings behind her already, she was an unknown quantity to me before yesterday's gig at the impressively re-vamped Live Theatre in Newcastle. Drawn by the hype which claimed her as a dead cert to be the next big thing in contemporary jazz, I naturally wanted to hear more. Let's face it , in marketing terms alone a young black female saxophonist with roots in one of the most significant avant-garde firmaments in the music's history is pretty significant. In extra musical terms alone the lure was pretty irresistible, and I arrived with an open mind, ready to be persuaded.
With a band comprising of some of the best talents from the British contemporary scene (Robert Mitchell, Tom Mason and Chris Vatalaro), and a ready made excuse to have a bite to eat at an Italian place on the Quayside before the gig, it all seemed too good for us to miss. As the evening wore on I started to form some conclusions, but more of that later. Initially I was completely disorientated by the new layout at the venue, so it was comforting to hear the customary superlative laden introduction to the band by Jazz North East supremo Chris Yates. Full credit to the organisation for taking a risk on this event, and for securing the use of such a superb facility for the night.
As the music unfolded in the almost ideal surroundings (I say 'almost' because although the electric keyboard laid on for the brilliant pianist Robert Mitchell was superb, you still can't beat the real thing), what I discovered was a confident and engaging young player steeped in Coltrane and with a massive musical debt to Arthur Blythe. Blindfolded, there were many moments durning the two sets when I could have sworn I was listening to big Arthur. Her direct bluesy phrasing, ambiguous intonation and avant garde expressionism are Blythe's unique trademarks, but what individual traits or of musical progressions of her own was she bringing to the table?
Mesmerised by her engaging stage presence and obvious submersion into the music, the respectably sized audience were certainly won over. Perhaps it's a combination of style and content that is responsible for most of the buzz. In terms of sheer virtuosity Mitchell eclipsed anything that Roberts could offer. Perhaps wisely she realised this and gave him a less up front role than you'd expect in a conventional quartet. Nevertheless he's an irrepressible spirit and he managed to probe every gap with often tumultuous results. No, what marked out Roberts most clearly in my mind was not really her playing but her approach to form. As a musical thinker and synthesist she's clearly looking both forwards and back. Her cell-like compositions are rich in detail and deep in their structures. Her homages to inspiring figures from the past are also sincere and personal. A great individual voice she may yet lack, but I'm in no doubt that there's nothing fake about her music.
At one time Roberts may have been seen as an enfant terrible, but almost 40 years after Ornette Coleman proclaimed the amorphous shape of jazz to come, the avant garde is becoming so assimilated into the mainstream that many of the flourishes that once drew public opprobrium are now part of the standard jazz lexicon. Free-time, atonal interplay, extended techniques - all are taught in the conservatory system that Roberts herself came through only relatively recently. What differentiates her from many of her peers is the extent to which she's been shaped by good old fashioned experience on the bandstand. Learning from older generations of musician at unofficial conservatories such as Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge has done her a power of good, and if some of the hype is undoubtedly over stated, she's still deserving of our consideration.
The reverence she brought to Ellington & Strayhorn's 'Isfahan' was sincere and humble, her deconstruction of a little heard Monk-piece both worthwhile and true to her aesthetic. Whether playing original material or picking gems from other composers to cast in her mould, Roberts brought a mature assurance and authority to the stage and clearly has a good ear and no lack of taste.
Jazz's next big thing? I'd like to think she'll be on the crest of the same wave that William Parker and Matthew Shipp are both riding, and the potential is certainly there. With a winning personality, a hip and highly marketable public profile and enough musical sincerity to win over the sternest of critics, it looks like she'll be making waves around the world that she calls her home for a long time to come.