Matana Roberts and Seb Rochford at Cafe Oto, 7/3/11

Matana Roberts and Seb Rochford by Scott McMillan

“It is a good thing there isn’t a microphone up here,” said saxophonist Matana Roberts early on in this performance, “as if you’ve seen me before you’ll know it can be dangerous to give me a microphone”. Indeed – for Matana Roberts has a lot to say. Her live sets will be interrupted with stories, with Q&A sessions, with calls for comments and requests. But her music too feels like a continuation of this side of her personality. Solo, she is a raconteur, telling tales from her Chicago roots and her Harlem home. In a group setting there is a full and frank exchange of opinions. So in a duo, as in tonight’s set with Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford (for a change, Roberts didn’t have the most eye-catching hairstyle on the stage), I was expecting something akin to a conversation. It didn’t always feel that way.

Matana Roberts by Scott McMillan

Roberts began this improvised set at her bluesy best, spinning slow lyrical phrases, punctuated by the occasional “huh”. Or, rather, “huh?”, as in “what do YOU reckon?”: even these vocal interjections seemed chatty. Rochford did join in, but his comments felt somewhat diffident and off-point to begin with, fractures which didn’t seem to connect. Via experimentation, he found a common language: beguiling rhythms played on tiny sticks seemed to be responding to the clicks of Matana’s keys, some glorious long split notes were met with scraped cymbals, while an extended section in which he played the drums with his hands seemed to be an attempt to find a common root. But despite all this evident technique, he seemed content to remain in reflective mode for most of the show, playing back ideas, checking understanding, rather than adding to the story himself.

Seb Rochford by Scott McMillan

At the start of the second set, Roberts encouraged the drummer to lead off, and he built an impressive introduction, again without sticks, all fingers and palms. It seemed to lead Roberts into looser territory, the duo quarreling with each other in some raucous free improvisation, before the page turned and she was back in storyteller mode – a musical “so, anyway, as I was saying”. This musical squabbling seemed to attract the attention of some upstairs neighbours (Oto has upstairs neighbours?) who began banging on the floor. “Like a New York apartment”, mused Roberts, while Rochford too found in this intrusion something he could relate to. Echoing the THUMP THUMP THUMP on his kit, this new trio found a whole new level of energy, a brutal rhythmic power combining with some gnarly blowing. At the end, when Roberts asked for “comments and considerations”, the audience appeared stunned into silence. She smiled. “I guess sometimes the music speaks for itself, huh?”.

Matana Roberts's saxophone, by Scott McMillan