Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Ronald Shannon Jackson primer

1) Charles Tyler Ensemble (1967). First record date. Fellow FTW expat Charles Moffet hooked him up. (Moffet was Ornette's drummer and OC didn't want him playing with other bands so he compromised by playing vibes.) RSJ was frustrated by ESP-Disk's no-rehearsal/one-take approach, but it's not as bad as he probably thought it was. Sometimes he sounds like Ed Blackwell. Sort of a chamber free jazz ensemble with a cello and Henry Grimes.

2) Albert Ayler Quintet, Live At Slug's (1966). Ayler (from Cleveland; Ohio is the secret music capital of America) was the only early free jazz pioneer without even a thimbleful of bebop in his style. Instead, he played a purely emotional, vibrato-laden amalgam of spirituals, marches, and nursery rhymes that Charles Ives would have understood and RSJ underscored, his kick-drum driven parade ground-via-honky tonk style coming to the fore.

3) When Dancing In Your Head came out, I had only heard two other Ornette Coleman records (Crisis and Science Fiction), so it was hard to figure out what to make of this most Ayleresque of all OC jams, on which he was accompanied by what sounded to me like James Brown's band on acid and Captain Beefheart's drummer. RSJ's stomping backbeat propels this ecstatic romp, but is kind of buried under what sound like percussion overdubs. When these records were new, I liked Body Meta (the follow-up album, recorded at the same sessions less) less, partly because Charlie Ellerbee had the ugliest sounding fuzzbox on Earth, but in the fullness of time, I probably dig it more because it's easier to hear Shannon.

4) RSJ only went with Ornette for a finite period, while OC's son was in college, but Ornette didn't work a lot, so in 1978, Shannon spent a few months touring and recording with Cecil Taylor. The titanic pianist had worked with some great drummers, but none of 'em had the unmitigated audacity to put a backbeat behind his shifting techtonic plates the way Shannon did. They made four records together, and One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye, which in its 2CD form documents a complete concert (including duos and a drum solo that were left off the original vinyl), is my fave. On it, RSJ does the best percussive impression of an erupting volcano since Elvin and Rashied teamed up on Trane's Meditations, and he was doing it all by himself! If you don't think you could withstand 140 minutes of this, try 3 Phasis, which doles out the thunder in smaller, more digestible chunks.

5) RSJ's original Decoding Society teamed veterans with newcomers that included a pair of Brooklyn teens named Vernon Reid and Melvin Gibbs. Shannon's compositions juxtaposed rhythmic complexity with graceful contrapuntal melodies, and as a leader, he seemed more focused on creating a band dynamic than with dominating the proceedings with flashy playing. That said, his rhythms shaped every note they played. Over time, the lead voice on top shifted from Billy Bang's violin to Lee Rozie's soprano to Khan Jamal's vibes to Henry Scott's scream trumpet, while Vernon balanced his fierce, Mahavishnoid intensity with rustic turns on banjo and steel, and Melvin conducted ongoing bass dialogues with Reverend Bruce Johnson. After a few indie releases, a major label contract brought them a shot at mass-ass acceptance without artistic compromise on Mandance and Barbeque Dog.

6) The mid-'80s brought collaborations with producer Bill Laswell, including Decode Yourself, where Shannon added electronic percussion to the Decoding Society's mix; Last Exit, a jazz-skronk supergroup with Sonny Sharrock, Peter Brotzmann, and Laswell, where RSJ occasionally interrupted the otherwise unremitting intensity to sing a Jimmy Reed ditty; and Pulse, an album of solo drums and spoken word (his own and others; actually produced by jazz scribe David Breskin) on which he declaimed Shakespeare, Poe, and "Puttin' On Dog," giving George Clinton a run for his money.

7) Also in the '80s, RSJ toured the world (Asia, Africa, Europe) at the behest of the Reagan State Department, and was a frequent visitor to FTW's Caravan of Dreams. (I was stationed at Carswell and totally unaware of his, Ornettte's and Blood Ulmer's frequent and regular performances there. Duh.) When Colors Play, written on a trip to Africa, gets short shrift for being released on Caravan's itty-bitty label, and for its paucity of big-name sidemen. I consider it his masterpiece (so far).

8) Power Tools - Strange Meeting (1987). Bill Frisell seemed kinda rustic and pastoral to be collaborating with RSJ and Melvin Gibbs, but then again, Pat Metheny made a good record with Ornette, so anything's possible. This is one of my favorite recs of the '80s, and I don't have words to describe the pleasure of getting to hear Melvin and Shannon play "Howard Beach Memories" from this album together at the Kessler in Oak Cliff last summer.

9) The late Jef Lee Johnson had more blues grit in his style than you'd expect of a guitarist from Philadelphia, and he was the mainstay of RSJ's bands on four albums: the guitar-centric Red Warrior and Raven Roc, the quartet date What Spirit Say (with rising young reedman James Carter), and Shannon's House (a larger ensemble with FTW home folks Thomas Reese and Rachella Parks). If you dig melodic Rawk guitar ramalama a la Jeff Beck/Funkadelic, you owe it to yourself to hear Jef Lee deconstruct "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" on Shannon's House. And if you think RSJ doesn't have a sensahumour, you should see the leprechaun suit he's wearing in the pic on the back of Raven Roc.


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