In 1915, when Alfred Stieglitz first saw the drawings of Georgia O'Keeffe he declared, "At last, a woman on paper." Having just visited the Memorial Art Gallery's O'Keeffe exhibition, the first thing I thought of upon hearing Matana Roberts solo CD was: at last, a woman on saxophone.
There are other excellent female sax players, but just as O'Keeffe was a pioneering female modernist, Roberts is in a class by herself when it comes to plunging boldly into the avant-garde. She'll be sharing her distinctive sound when she plays solo at the Bop Shop atrium Monday, November 13.
As rare as Roberts is, her saxophone prowess is not completely surprising considering her background. Raised in Chicago, Roberts was immersed in the experimental music of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Founded in 1965, the AACM has spawned some of the finest instrumentalists of the last five decades, including Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, and Lester Bowie.
"My dad is a vinyl freak," says Roberts. "He was very much into the creative music coming out of Chicago because at the time he was growing up a lot of that music was incredibly political. That's what brought him towards the AACM, listening to the Art Ensemble [of Chicago] and other things."
At first Roberts played classical clarinet and didn't want anything to do with jazz. But after having a tough time adjusting to the lack of diversity at her college she found herself drawn to jazz.
"There were so many black people who were founders of that music, black people that people of all races were idolizing because of their art form."
As she made the transition she found that her voice on saxophone was more comfortable than her voice on clarinet. She also discovered an alternative to the lack of support she felt at school: the thriving music scene on Chicago's South Side.
"I was at a point where I felt like I was falling through the cracks. If it wasn't for the AACM... I started going to jam sessions at Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge, hanging out with Von Freeman..."
Among those who encouraged her were bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Chad Taylor, with whom she formed the trio Sticks And Stones.
Since then she has played and recorded with Anderson, Steve Lacy, Peter Brotzmann, and many others. She's also a member of the New York-based arkestra, Burnt Sugar
One of the most unique aspects of Roberts' sound is the manner in which it looks back and forward at the same time. Her solo album, Lines for Lacy, features five Ellington and Strayhorn tunes filtered through her avant-garde sensibility.
The album is dedicated to one of her mentors, the late Steve Lacy, a fan of Ellington and Strayhorn. As avant-garde as she is, Roberts admits to a love of Ellington band saxophonist Johnny Hodges.
As for female role models among instrumentalists, Roberts had none.
"It's a bit bizarre, and one of the reasons I'm trying to be on the forefront of this music is so that it will no longer be bizarre. Honestly, I can't give you an example of a female instrumentalist who I idolize in this style at this time and there's something wrong with that."
Aside from her group and solo work, Roberts is composing large-scale pieces exploring her family history. She's found records going back to the1700s of, among others, Marie Therese Coincoin of Lousiana. Coincoin was an African slave who became a businesswoman and eventually headed one of the richest black families in the United States.
When she visits Rochester, Roberts will be performing in the cavernous, resonant atrium at the Village Gate. While playing, she'll be seeking an elusive state.
"There's one feeling that I'm always trying to get to. I don't even know how to describe it. It's a state of nothingness where everything in that moment is exactly how it should be. Improvisation gives you an opportunity to create a new reality, to forget all the stuff I've been thinking about before I get on the stage. There have been those rare moments. It's like I'm on another plane, another planet, another space. I find myself trying to get back to that."
Matana Roberts plays Monday, November 13, at 8 p.m. at the Bop Shop Atrium, Village Gate Square, 274 North Goodman Street. $8 donation requested. Info: 271-3354. Upcoming shows at the Bop Shop Atrium include LeeRonZydeco (November 18) and The Respect Sextet (December 19). The Bop Shop's Milestone series includes The Asylum Street Spankers (November 19); folk legends Peter Walker and Jack Rose (December 5) and Bubba Hernandez, who shared in two Grammy Awards while in Brave Combo (December 9). For more information check www.bopshop.com.