The most remarkable aspect of Mississippi Moonchile is the way it maintains movement. It’s constantly either speeding up or slowing down; bubbling to climaxes of volume or fading into silence like smoke dispersing in the air; bringing piano to a halt so that drums can swoop chiming over the top; saxophone swaps out for monologues that gush forth with the assured direction and rhythmic skip of a dainty gazelle; melody arises in momentary alignments of instrument before the ensemble falls into a fluid babble of jostle and commotion. Its infinite unravelling carries all of the loose-limbed instinct of free jazz, but while there are moments where Roberts’ saxophone brays and fidgets in a manner that evokes the smell of smoky Chicago cafes, there are many more points that play around with more culturally eclectic imagery – through narratives that exist on an operatically gargantuan scale, complete with exaggerated climaxes of event and emotional burst – and gritty spoken passages taken from Roberts’ interviews with her own grandmother, studded with vividly captured (and often unpleasant) memories from childhood and beyond.
As my listening continues, I begin to notice all of the opposing forces attempting to skew Mississipi Moonchile’s liberated free-flow. The presence of an operatic male vibrato is a deliberately brash presence in amongst the more traditional jazz elements, flapping helplessly in the midst of the opening swell of “Invocation”. While it often holds its own in the clamour, it can also feel as though it’s drowning helplessly within the music. Equally, “Woman Red Racked” cuts back to just a congregation of voices and two double bass notes repeated over and over again, as Roberts’ voice quivers within the sudden onset of quiet. “I say I love you black woman” she declares with delicacy and insistence, and as her voice licks up into falsetto for the last syllable, the music is reduced to the beauty and heart-stopping frailty of glass. The power of Mississipi Moonchile is instantly apparent, yet as the record surges into its closing stages, I feel as though such a phenomenal outburst of energy could be at the self-destructive expense of its maker. It’s a beautiful thing.