REVIEW: Matana Roberts, Byron Wallen, Leafcutter John at Cafe Oto

Matana Roberts at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston
© 2016. All Rights Reserved


Matana Roberts, Byron Wallen, Leafcutter John
(Cafe Oto, 26 October 2016 - night 2 of 3 night 'Wildcard' residency at Cafe Oto; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)


'Music is a language.' While the Chicago-born saxophonist Matana Roberts digressed to share amusing experiences of misunderstandings arising from the American and English usages of the same words, she didn't otherwise stray from her key message and said how much she enjoyed the challenge of sharing the language that is music with musicians she's not played with before - and with the audience.

Roberts immediately established common linguistic territory with trumpeter Byron Wallen and electronics whizz Leafcutter John. They put in place unspoken markers from which emerged surprising and closely bonded improvised gusts and flows of energetic and demanding improvisation - a network of inspired calls and responses, mergings and demergings and solo sprees, all held in place by a deep core of shared references and a sparkstream of musicianly dexterity.

Roberts referred to fellow Virgos - John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Charlie Parker - and the robust, graceful confidence in her profoundly rooted alto sax phrasings owed much to their groundwork and the struggles that these illustrious forebears had endured. In a wider context these are issues which Roberts is tackling in her monumental Coin Coin project, awaiting the completion next year, she revealed, of the fourth chapter in a projected series of 12 albums.

Wallen, likewise, dug deep to summon compressed flights of piercing notes, breathy exhalations and enduring, rippling runs which had at times the edgy, reflective qualities of fellow trumpeter, Wadada Leo Smith. Pausing to apply the mute, the sharper edges were softened - but not for long!

Leafcutter John was perhaps the wild card in this trio. In his acrobatic manipulation of hand-held lights to activate sounds via sensors in light-sensitive sheets he threw in all manner of swerveballs to which Roberts and Wallen responded with imagination and authority.

Sinking back to supply reverberating industrial drones and hums or washing the stage with liquid gurgles, searing electronic slashes or a pulse from Terry Riley's book, John pushed the envelope. The cogs turned with lightning speed as Roberts and Wallen connected with this extended argot, coming back with parallel voicings and throwing in new markers, making afresh the case for pure acoustic playing that lies at the heart of jazz.

Roberts, with long-standing connections in London, felt she was playing to her 'home town crowd' and demonstrated an engaging humility as she thanked the Cafe Oto audience for 'supporting fringe artists like myself.'

There are still a few tickets for Matana Roberts' third and final night of her Cafe Oto residency. Not to be missed!

Cafe Oto website

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