A Mesmerizingly Provocative New Suite From Matana Roberts at the Park Avenue Armory
“Barcoding existence,” spoken word artist Geng pronounced, calmly and stoically, standing motionless in a monklike outfit on a balcony inside the Park Avenue Armory last night. Below him, bandleader and alto saxophonist Matana Roberts was flanked by a sextet of drummers, three on each side. She was fixated on her laptop. Several times throughout her sold-out show in the opulently renovated Officers Room here, she’d record the ensemble and then play it back, or loop a segment, as if strategizing her next move.
“Watch them triangulate on your tv dinner,” Geng intoned. He could have been referring to a microwave…or something more sinister. That was the least opaque moment in a night of music that was as provocative as it was allusive. Roberts’ catalog is fearlessly political, and richly lyrical, spanning from lushly enveloping AACM jazz, to poignant small-group and solo compositions, to heavy rock and multimedia. You can check out her similarly thought-inducing collages at the closing reception tonight at 6 at the Fridman Gallery, 287 Spring St. west of Varick in SoHo.
She opened this new suite, Blood.Blues (A Remembrance) with a couple of deliciously microtonal sax swoops and ended with a long “ommmmmm” mantra, encouraging the audience to join her. In between, she led the group – which also comprised drummers Kate Gentile, Tomas Fujiwara, Qasim Ali Naqvi, Mike Pride, Ryan Sawyer and Justin Veloso – through a series of highly improvised variations on two main themes. One of them employed a series of gongs to create waves of ringing, pointillistic, gamelanesque melody. The other was a series of sardonic, martially-inflected snare drum rhythms. There are always innumerable levels of meaning in Roberts’ work, so to reduce it to the dilemma of how to keep the struggle going while Big Brother tries to lull you into complacency wouldn’t do justice to it. That seemed to be the main theme.
Roberts held the center calmly, both with airy, warmly resonant sax phrases and with a looming string synth riff emanating at odd intervals from the laptop. Meanwhile, Geng spoke obliquely of resistance against repression and the daily struggle to keep it together during historically dark times. Much as the roughly hourlong suite had plenty of crushing sarcasm and defiance, Roberts chose to wrap it up on a prayerful note, a guarded voice of hope.
Roberts is off on UK tour next month with sound artist Kelly Jayne Jones; dates are here.