Thursday, May 24, 2018

Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society - 1982 - Man Dance

Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society 
Man Dance

01. Man Dance (4:31)
02. Iola (5:23)
03. Spanking (3:07)
04. Catman (6:44)
05. The Art Of Levitation (1:24)
06. Belly Button (4:45)
07. Giraffe (3:07)
08. When Souls Speak (5:47)
09. Alice In The Congo (6:09)

Ronald Shannon Jackson / drums, compositions
Vernon Reid / guitar & banjo
Melvin Bibbs / bass
Rev. Bruce Johnson / bass
Henry Scott / flugelhorn, trumpet
Lee Rozie / sax
Zane Massey / sax
David Gordon / trumpet

Jackson's compositions here remind me of a freer, funkier version of Moondog, which might be the highest complement I can give to a jazz musician. This one's also helped along by the fact that the musicians clearly love playing with each other - listen to how much fun Melvin Gibbs is having playing off of Vernon Reid's banjo on "Iola," or "The Art of Levitation," which is Danny Elfman-esque in its demented glee.

Because Zane Massey isn't exactly the type of saxophonist who can carry a track into the stratosphere this album is at its best when it heads into funkier over freer territory (think the extended bass leads at the end of "Catman" or the terrific closer "Alice in the Congo," which only comes out of its menacing lurch for extended string solos) though Reid in particular shines in the heavily-improvised moments, unleashing James Blood Ulmer-level leads all over the place. The dual bass lineup of Gibbs and Bruce Johnson also leads to some interesting textures, especially on "When Souls Speak." All in all, this a solid piece of 1980s free-funk style jazz, not the type of thing that will appeal to Blue Note Records purists but certainly enjoyable if your tastes are a little more out there.

Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society - 1981 - Street Priest

Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society 
Street Priest

01. Street Priest 6:17
02. Sperm Walk 8:07
03. City Witch 5:51
04. Sandflower 4:21
05. Hemlock For Cordials 7:05
06. Chudo Be 8:06

Bass - Melvin Gibbs
Bass - Reverend Bruce Johnson
Drums - Ronald Shannon Jackson
Electric Guitar - Vernon Reid
Saxophone, Flute - Zane Massey
Saxophone - Lee Rozie

Recorded at: Studio Nord, Bremen 13th-16th June 1981

In the Sixties and Seventies, jazz music took a substantial downturn in its popularity and importance to mainstream American society. Not surprisingly, the jazz economy suffered in parallel. Due in no small part both to the commercial success of rock and roll and to the difficult nature ("inaccessibility") of Sixties free jazz (or "The New Thing"), jazz was no longer a core cultural phenomenon. Even the two remaining jazz music giants of the time, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, would wander into controversial territory by the late and mid-Sixties, respectively.

Thus, when considering jazz and related improvised, western musics in the 1980s, one could potentially focus attention on the work that Wynton Marsalis and his colleagues did to regain both recognition and respectability for jazz music. While Marsalis and company had—at best—a mildly positive impact on the jazz economy, they also transformed and revitalized the music culturally and socially. Jazz became known more widely as an "American classical art form" and appeared increasingly in classrooms, auditoriums, and conservatories. The music associated with this revival was typically representative of more conservative post-bebop styles, the Miles Davis quintet of the Sixties being a standard reference point.

The Seventies and Eighties, however, were not just a time of a purely neo-conservative re-exploration of past jazz traditions. The Seventies New York City loft scene provided an environment in which artists could regroup from the hostile reception that free jazz had been given, thus allowing for further development of musical ideas broached a decade earlier. At or around the same time, the stage was being set for a "post-loft" aesthetic that, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, would use the principle of freedom to mine the entire history of jazz and other musics, resulting in the creation of a rich variety of new forms, new sounds, and new styles. The artistic freedom afforded by the loft scene combined and coincided with a late modern condition of jazz music wherein all possible styles had presumably been exhausted. In essence, the analogue of post-modernism in jazz was being born. 

Henry Threadgill, James Blood Ulmer, David Murray, Anthony Davis, Oliver Lake, Arthur Blythe, and Ronald Shannon Jackson were among major participants in this "movement," synthesizing musical influences and performance styles from any number of sources: the entire history of jazz (including Sixties free jazz), rock, blues, art music, and world musics. As parallel efforts (that incorporated stylistic fusions and improvisational vocabularies) arose with musicians who were considered part of either the rock tradition or the western art music tradition, the word "jazz" itself began to lose what little meaning had not already been wrung out of it in the wake of Sixties free jazz.

As with many of the latter artists, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson's ascent to the critical recognition and mild popular success he enjoyed in the 1980s did not come early in life. In 1979, at the age of 39, Jackson formed The Decoding Society, a medium-sized ensemble that would become an ongoing vehicle to showcase his compositional/arranging talent and his uniquely propulsive drumming style. Sadly, by the mid–1990s, Jackson had lapsed into relative obscurity alongside many of his colleagues.

In his home town of Fort Worth, Texas, Ronald Shannon Jackson's exposure to a healthy variety of vernacular musics—country, gospel, jazz, blues, and soul—and his subsequent, early performance career, were key ingredients in his artistic trajectory, culminating in the exuberant compositions and sounds of The Decoding Society. After beginning his performing career in Texas, Jackson left the southwest for New York City in 1966 and quickly found work with Betty Carter, Charles Mingus, and numerous other prominent jazz artists. His most notable affiliation during this period was with seminal free jazz figure Albert Ayler. Soon thereafter he became relatively inactive on the scene for several years.

In 1974 Jackson met Ornette Coleman, began "lessons" with Coleman on his "harmolodic" theory, and recorded and performed with the original incarnation of Coleman's Prime Time Ensemble. Jackson's career accelerated in the late Seventies as he made formidable contributions to one of Cecil Taylor's many working ensembles, and participated in the landmark James Blood Ulmer recording, Are You Glad to Be in America? Certainly, by these late Seventies recordings, Jackson’s drumming was already indicative of what would become his signature style: an energetic pushing of the pulse, a loose and swinging feel, a focus on tom-tom and snare work, and the usage of parade rhythms (i.e. patterns involving repetitions of two sixteenth-notes followed by one or two eighth-notes).

Jackson gathered a combination of seasoned loft players and young, talented newcomers in 1979 as the first edition of The Decoding Society. Over the next decade, the group performed extensively and released about one recording per year. Personnel changes occurred over the years, but during the course of the Eighties and into the early Nineties there was a handful of core units anchored by some relatively long-term, primary performers. Unfortunately, Jackson's first six studio albums are out of print, despite most having seen at least a brief appearance on CD format. Jackson left New York City in the early Nineties and returned to Texas where he currently resides. Three studio Decoding Society recordings, his latest from the Nineties, document a period of seemingly sporadic activity.

Fortunately for those of us who bemoaned an almost complete disappearance of commercially available Ronald Shannon Jackson recordings, and for those who may have missed the opportunity the first time around, the Knitting Factory's KnitClassics label (a division of the jazz/pop club's Knitting Factory Records) has released nine "reissue" recordings by Jackson over the course of the year 2000, eight of which involve some version of The Decoding Society. Four out of these nine recordings were actually previously unreleased. Eight were recorded, either in the studio or live in performance during a span between 1983 and 1988, while one dates from a 1994 concert. The KnitClassics recordings provide broad coverage of Jackson and The Decoding Society's work through various editions of the band and their concomitant compositional and stylistic progression.

In response to his formulation of and early work with the Decoding Society, Jackson was critiqued as a primary participant in the so-called "new fusion" movement of the early Eighties. This movement was ostensibly derived from Coleman's then recent foray into electric music, forming a parallel to the way in which Seventies fusion emerged from the electric music of Miles Davis. Indeed, Jackson's first recording under his own name, The Decoding Society's Eye on You (About Time Records, 1980), exhibited more overt influence from Coleman than any subsequent work. Yet Eye on You was not merely an homage to Coleman, but in fact documented a new artistic voice.

For the first version of The Decoding Society, as well as most later versions, Jackson selected instrumentation with doublings similar to Coleman's Prime Time (and Free Jazz) ensemble: two or three saxophonists who each played multiple horns (or one sax and one trumpet), and initially two guitars and one bass, which quickly reversed to become one guitar (a teenage Vernon Reid who later formed Living Colour) and two basses (often in fretted/unfretted combination). Violin, vibes, and trombone made sporadic appearances and later on, lineups focusing on a core of multiple guitarists would return.

On Eye on You and subsequent early Decoding Society recordings, the ensemble's polyphonic texture was clearly rooted in Coleman's elusive "harmolodic system" which professes an equal role for harmony, movement (i.e. rhythm), and melody, and dispenses with traditional notions of key and pitch. Each instrument, in theory, would be capable of playing a rhythmic role, a harmonic role, a melodic role, or some combination thereof; a similar blurring applied to lead/soloing and accompanying roles. Moreover, Jackson's compositions did not typically focus on any one key. The combination of sharply contrasting, implied tonal centers, the predominance of polyphony over harmony, and an often heterophonic relationship (due to looseness in both rhythm and pitch) between ostensibly unison-based parts, all contributed to the prevailing tonal ambiguity.

Jackson's compositions for Eye on You were frequently built out of busy and even frenetic webs of multiple melodies and ostinato figures; the resultant energy was a reminder of Jackson's affiliation with Cecil Taylor. Multiple themes, usually carried by the horns and sometimes the guitar, were presented both as "head" melodies (at the beginning of the composition) and as material underneath one or more soloists. Melody instruments typically played either in unison or fourths. Melodic material often recalled Coleman in its simple motives and lazy, floating lyricism; at times Ayler in its urgent diatonicism; and at other times Mingus in its bluesy, spy-theme quality. Augmented seconds occasionally peppered the sound with an “eastern” sensibility. Melodies sometimes floated freely in their relationship to the pulse; sometimes they swung playfully and festively; and sometimes they serenely presented one of Jackson's gorgeous—yet still tonally ambiguous—ballads. Moreover, Jackson demonstrated an ability to develop long, snaking, sequencing melodies, something he no doubt brought with him from his experience with Coleman. Melodic development and structure formed the basis of Jackson's compositions, but free-blowing, both in solo and group configurations, abounded as well.

The Decoding Society sound was alternately (or simultaneously) hot and cool, savage and gentle, danceable and contemplative. It was a brew of African, “eastern,” and American sounds. Tempo, meter, feel, and stylistic references varied across different compositions and within single compositions as well. Jackson combined his parade rhythms with soulful tenor saxophone lines, the bluesy chatter of electric guitars, and the high-pitched exoticism of soprano saxophones (and high trumpet parts). Like many of the jazz giants before him, he showed a knack for creating a big sound out of a relatively small band.

In 1981, The Decoding Society recorded and released two albums for the German Moers label. Three more releases for Island (or Antilles/Island) Records followed in 1982, 1983, and 1985 respectively. All five of the latter recordings involved a fairly stable unit whose core consisted of Jackson, Vernon Reid (now the sole guitarist and a dominant voice in the ensemble), two bassists, and two to three horns (limited to saxophones on the Moers releases and expanded to include trumpet or trombone on the Island releases).

The Moers dates (which resulted in Nasty and Street Priest) were well recorded, effectively highlighting the busy, melodic interplay of the two bassists who served less in the traditional/functional bass roles and more in melodic roles that were on par with the horns and guitar. The feel was overall more funky and the melodies more catchy than on Eye on You. Reid was given more room to stretch out, while the saxophones continued to explore the high register, and Jackson continued to embed rhythms and melodies within a polyphonic texture that exhibited Coleman's influence. Nevertheless, this music had rapidly and unquestionably become Jackson's own and the Moers recordings exhibit some of his finest work.

Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society - 1981 - Nasty

Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society

01. Small World 3:20
02. Black Widow 10:18
03. Sweet Natalie 5:01
04. Nasty 5:55
05. When We Return 11:39

Bass - Melvin Gibbs
Bass - Bruce Johnson
Drums - Ronald Shannon Jackson
Electric Guitar - Vernon Reid
Saxophone, Flute - Byard Lancaster
Saxophone - Charles Brackeen
Saxophone - Lee Rozie
Vibraphone - Khan Jamal

Recorded at: The Hit Factory - New York, N.Y. 23rd to 27th March 1981

Ronald Shannon Jackson is best known as a jazz drummer of the first rank, having worked with both Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. But he is becoming better known as the leader, composer and arranger for the Decoding Society, one of the most progressive and influential jazz-rock bands now performing and recording. The brand of amplified music the Decoding Society dispenses is derived from the work Mr. Coleman began doing with his own electric band, Prime Time, in the mid-70's; Mr. Jackson was Prime Time's original drummer. But while Mr. Coleman has recorded and performed infrequently, Mr. Jackson has set about the arduous task of building a reputation for his performing group and getting its music on disks.

Two albums by the Decoding Society, ''Eye on You'' (About Time Records) and ''Nasty'' (Moers Music), are fascinating examples of a new direction in electric music that will undoubtedly prove as influential during the l980's as Miles Davis's jazz-rock albums were in the 70's. The Decoding Society is not the only band working in this new area. Mr. Coleman's Prime Time led the way as early as 1975, but the only examples of Prime Time on record date from its first year and are not really representative of how the group sounds now. James (Blood) Ulmer, the electric guitarist who played with Mr. Coleman before forming his own band several years ago, will have his first album for a major label released by Columbia this month, and it will undoubtedly turn a few heads. But at the moment, the state of ''harmolodic music,'' as Mr. Coleman calls it, is best represented by the Decoding Society's two albums.

That word ''harmolodic'' gets hurled around a great deal these days, but Mr. Coleman has never offered a really succinct definition. Basically, it is music that concentrates on counterpoint, with horns,guitars, and even electric basses all playing independent melody lines, often in different keys. The rhythms are similarly dense, but they are driving dance rhythms, and each of the musicians in the band plays rhythmically, contributing to the kinetic force of the music. This is not a sound in which a soloist dominates over a rhythm section. Theoretically, at least, each instrument has an equal voice in the ensemble. And in ''harmolodic'' ensemble playing, each instrument's part remains distinct without getting in any other instrument's way.

Mr. Jackson has a real talent for writing compositions that are both melodic and rhythmically compelling, and his band is at its best when it delivers condensed, punchy performances of these compositions. ''Eye on You,'' which includes 11 of Mr. Jackson's tunes, is the great album. Each piece develops organically, with the written themes seeming to shift prismatically as the player s improvise on them.
''Nasty'' includes only five tunes, and two of them are rambling jams more than 10 minutes in length. The Moers dates (which resulted in Nasty and Street Priest) were well recorded, effectively highlighting the busy, melodic interplay of the two bassists who served less in the traditional/functional bass roles and more in melodic roles that were on par with the horns and guitar. The feel was overall more funky and the melodies more catchy than on Eye on You. Reid was given more room to stretch out, while the saxophones continued to explore the high register, and Jackson continued to embed rhythms and melodies within a polyphonic texture that exhibited Coleman's influence. Nevertheless, this music had rapidly and unquestionably become Jackson's own and the Moers recordings exhibit some of his finest work.

And both albums, establish Mr. Jackson as one of the most provocative band leaders who working on the razor's edge between free-form, fusion and funk.

Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society - 1980 - Eye On You

Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society 
Eye On You

01. Sortie 3:51
02. Nightwhistlers 3:28
03. Apache Love Cry 6:15
04. Shaman 4:09
05. Eastern Voices / Western Dreams 4:17
06. Dancers Of Joy 2:59
07. Arising 4:25
08. Orange Birthday 2:36
09. Theme For A Prince 3:22
10. Eye On You 5:50
11. Ballet De Omphalos 4:34

Ronald Shannon Jackson / drums, compositions
Vernon Reid / guitar
Melvin Gibbs / bass
Bern Nix / guitar
Erasto Vasconcelos / percussion
Bynard Lancaster / alto & soprano sax
Charles Brackeen / tenor & soprano sax
Billy Bang / violin

Ronald Shannon Jackson, along with Bill Laswell, John Zorn, Vernon Reid and other NYC based jazz musicians, played an important role in that movement that took jazz/rock away from formulaic post-70s 'fuzak' and re-energized the genre with a punky urban urgency and creative use of musical forms that had previously been considered outside of the jazz boundries. Jackson got his start playing with prestigous free jazz culprits such as Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, & most importantly, Ornette Coleman. Jackson was an original member of Coleman's highly influentuial electric jazz emsemble 'Prime Time'. It was his exposure to Coleman's harmolodic compositional technique during this period that would shape the direction of Jackson's own music. 

In the late 70's Jackson began forming what would come to be known as 'The Decoding Society' which showcased influential players Vernon Reid (Living Colour) & Melvin Gibbs (Rollins Band, Power Tools). Jackson released several albums with The Decoding Society throughout the 80's, the most notable of which was the 1982 release 'Mandance', an album that was praised by critics & fans alike as a watershed in the history of jazz. 

In 1986 Jackson joined forces with free jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock (an unaccredited contributor to Miles Davis' 'A Tribute to Jack Johnson'), avant-garde sax player Peter Brotzmann, & experimental bassist Bill Laswell (Material, Massacre, Praxis) to form 'Last Exit', a band that focused on improvisational jazz with an aggressive edge. A year later Jackson joined Bill Frisell (Naked City) & Melvin Gibbs to form the little known yet highly influential band 'Power Tools'.

The Decoding Society was really a unique and tight group led by Ronald Shannon Jackson. Jackson was a beast of a drummer. As far as jazz drumming goes, I am most blown away by the trance inducing meta-rhythmic exercises in chaos orchestrated by drummers like Milford Graves or Rashied Ali. I also have a strong affinity for Elvin Jones. Jackson has the looseness and intensity of these drummers, but he manages to lock all of this into really heavy driving grooves. Honestly I think the rhythm section of this band would sound right at home in some sort of weird punk or avant-rock band.
The compositions are really cool. I can't help but think of prog or RIO when I hear this, but then again that music draws heavily from jazz. I'm not an authority on the taxonomy of music -- 
(or anything really...)
this is probably jazz. But to me it really does sound quite akin to a lot of prog. The dual saxophones and Billy Bang's violin both compliment the guitar melodies and twist into dueling cacophony that reminds me of such moments typical in avant-garde jazz, but also in no wave.
The Decoding Society really doesn't sound like any other fusion or jazz-rock group I've heard, they've really got their own funky and weird thing going on on this record -- and I really dig it! I can't say this is the most mind-blowing sound out there but it is well worth checking out, especially I think for fans of prog and weird proggy/jazzy punk which is where my head's been at lately.