- 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
hadat besta 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
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
mid1990s, 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 musicscountry, gospel, jazz,
blues, and souland 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, Jacksons 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.
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
- 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
- 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.
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 gorgeousyet still tonally ambiguousballads.
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
- The Island
period (starting with Man Dance and Barbecue Dog)
represented the height of the group's visibility and popularity.
Funk and blues gestures had become more overt than ever, contributing
to a pastiche not found in the earlier work. Tempo and feel shifted
rapidly from section to section. Hints of tonality, often in funk-based
solo sections, could now be heard in contrast to polytonal and
atonal sections. Unison sections at very fast tempos and Reid's
fiery guitar work both exhibited the flashiness reminiscent of
Seventies fusion, yet the signature rhythms, quirky melodies, and arranging/orchestration
style assured the listener that this sound was still unmistakably
Jackson's. Despite the return of the violin, the addition of the
trombone, some interesting stylistic forays into country, bebop,
and space funk, and the promise of a Bill Laswell production,
the third Island release, Decode Yourself, is marred by
a thin sound, gimmicky electronic drum and synthesizer timbres,
and (surprisingly) a plodding, four-square rhythmic monotony.
- The first
five Knitting Factory CDs date from just after the release of
Barbecue Dog in 1983, and continue through the beginning
of a series in 1986 of Decoding Society recordings under the Texas-based
Caravan of Dreams label. With the exception of Puttin' on Dog,
these are all live recordings, and Montreux Jazz Festival
shows what the 1983 personnel could do in a live setting. Despite
less than optimal recording quality, the energy and the excitement
of the band shines through. Two of Jackson's sidemen contribute
compositions that sound as though they were written by the leader
himself. The three remaining tracks originate from Man Dance
and Barbecue Dog.
Dreams, recorded live at the Caravan of Dreams in 1984, features
a similar band to that of Decode Yourself. The four-square,
driving beat of the latter album shows up on multiple compositions
here, but with a raw, swinging energy that was lacking on the
studio effort. Country music is overtly referenced on the title
track, and the violin is used not only for this effect, but also
to help create eerie melodies and timbres throughout the recording.
The final track, "Booby Trap, places a triadic, Ayler-esque
melody over Jackson's marching rhythms and bubbling bass lines.
In essence, this recording succeeds where Decode Yourself
failed in creating a joyous hoe-down of space-age dance music.
in the Spider Bush is a reissue of the album originally entitled
Live at the Caravan of Dreams (Caravan of Dreams Records,
1985). Here The Decoding Society consists of only a five-piece
abbreviation of the Decode Yourself band, but is supplementedaccording
to the liner notes, with little or no rehearsalby a chorus
of African vocalists who double on percussion (talking drum, etc.).
This collaboration is an experiment long overdue, given The Decoding
Society's connection to African music. The African vocals lock
into place with the band's groove and vice-versa. The material
is primarily connected to the Island period, but Cary Denigris'
guitar sometimes foreshadows the sound of the subsequent Caravan
of Dreams albums.
- Live at
the Greenwich House from January 1986 is chronologically the
last Knitting Factory release that includes Vernon Reid on guitar.
As with Beast in the Spider Bush, the personnel is transitioning
towards the ensemble that later recorded When Colors Play
and Talkeye. Cary Denigris, guitar, and Eric Person, saxophonea
duo who would go on to join a quartet with drummer/leader Chico
Hamiltonparticipate. Tonal funk grooves and chatty guitar
parts abound. Despite any deficiencies in recording quality, this
is a set of complex, high energy, performances.
on Dog was originally recorded and released in 1984 as Pulse
was being made with Celluloid Records. The basis of this recording
was a set of solo drum and voice (both Jackson's) improvisations
that were produced in an impromptu warm-up session before a live
Decoding Society performance. A handful of later, "planned"
tracks also featured solo drums with a reader (of poetry) and
one solo piano piece. While he disavows "masturbation and
drum solos" in the liner notes, it's enlightening to hear
Jackson in a solo context; he both swings and exhibits his great
power. Many of these tracks sound like the melodic/percussive
underpinning of a Decoding Society composition.
- In the liner
notes of When Colors Play (recorded live at the Caravan
of Dreams in September 1986 and reissued in the KnitClassics series),
Shannon Jackson states that he's "more pleased with this
music than anything I've done before." He then explains that
he wrote these compositions just before and during a trip to West
Africa. For Jackson, the journey was a personal and musical watershed.
The metaphor of color was apparently particularly important on
this set of compositions, as a different color was included in
five out of the eight titles and various colors are paralleled
by various musical moods.
- On this recording,
Jackson is unafraid to alternate beautiful, tonally focused sections
with jagged material more characteristic of the earlier Decoding
Society. The lineup of two guitars (Cary Denigris and Masujaa),
two saxophonists (Eric Person and Zane Massey), bass (John Moody),
and drums is used to great effect. Denigris and Masujaa create
rich harmonic beds not found in the earlier Decoding Society,
produce chatty ostinato figures reminiscentrhythmically,
not melodicallyof West African highlife music, and solo
with a distorted, acid-drenched flashiness that brings to mind
late Miles Davis recordings (Agharta, et al.). The horns
play slightly detuned, unison melody lineswith Jackson's
signature snake charmer sensibilitywhich create a tension
to contrast with the sweeter side of the overall sound. Jackson
uses parade-influenced snare-and-tom patterns that rival the complexity
of anything he has recorded before, while the bass anchors the
Coronas from When Colors Play starts with a fast
ostinato in fourths by the horns over a slower ostinato by one
guitar, bleeding into a (signature) winding, free-rhythm, unison
melody by both horns and the second guitar, while the first guitar
continues with its original ostinato.
A wild guitar solo follows, accompanied by the ongoing bass guitar
and rumbling snare/tom groove, and punctuated by rhythm guitar
The guitar ostinato and long head melody return, followed by the
original horn ostinato closing out the track. The formal arch
structure is matched with a rise and fall of relative energy level
(given the wildness of the solo), but the tension never really
abates. "Sweet Orange" shows how to create beauty out
of the simplest of melodic materials: a minor third (B-D) is repeated
in groups of three over a pedal G bass and three harmonies based
on second inversions of major seventh chords with top notes E,
F-sharp, and G.
This is a modal environment playing off both G major and minor,
with the alto saxophone blowing a lyrical solo over this initial
bed. A short section of whining, bending guitar is followed by
another typical, meandering, unison melody still centered around
G major and minor.
This two-note motif briefly returns before a long soprano saxophone
duet ensues, building in energy; the unison melody follows this
solo and leads to an extended repetition of the two-note motif
with alto saxophone soloing to the end.
- When Colors
Play balances all of the ideas Jackson had been developing
over the past six years of The Decoding Society. It is "accessible,"
but not artistically compromising. It is flashy at times, but
more often it's simply emotionally exhilarating. Jackson's liner
notes were on the mark: this recording is a masterpiece.
- The same
personnel from When Colors Play appeared on the subsequent
recording Texas (Caravan of Dreams Records, 1987) which
was reissued in the Knitting Factory series as Talkeye
(named after Jackson's son and the title of one of the album's
compositions). These pieces were not altogether dissimilar to
the sounds presented on Colors, but it's generally a less
impressionistic and less intense work. Jackson is slowly leaning
towards a blues influenced soundparticularly evidenced by
some of the saxophone solosthat would dominate his later
Decoding Society work.
- Red Warrior
(reissued in the Knitting Factory series) was released in 1990
on Bill Laswell's Axiom label, but was recorded in 1988 and is
the first document of a new type of Decoding Society lineup: typically
no horn players, but a multiple (three in this case, along with
two bassists) guitars are included. Guitars are in fact now the
focus of the band's sound, along with Jackson and the bassists.
Tonality is as consistent and strong as ever, and grooves and
rhythms lean towards funk, rock, and blues, while Jackson's drumming
is still very much in his typical, free-wheeling style. Head melodies
and ostinatos connect the music to the original Decoding Society,
but comparisons stop at that point. The three guitarists create
a raucous, southern-fried, bluesy wall of sound. The early exoticism
has given way to a more earthy (and American) sound. Unfortunately,
Laswell's production lacks both the warmth and depth that could
have made these high-energy performances envelop the listener.
A superior recording is the 1992 Raven Roc (DIW Records)
which pares the personnel down to one bass and two guitars (Jef
Lee Johnson and Dave Fiuczynski), but still retains a full and
- Live in
Warsaw, a previously unreleased live set from 1994, features
the most pared down version of The Decoding Society, with the
now prominent saxophonist James Carter, a bassist, and the Jef
Lee JohnsonJackson's latest veteran memberon guitar.
This is a loose and funky affair with some fine blowing by Carter,
Johnson, and Jackson. Jackson has issued just two studio recordings
(on DIW) since this live date, one recorded in late 1994 (What
Spirit Say) featuring the same lineup, and one recorded in
Texas in 1996 (Shannon's House) which consists of a conventional
lineup of drums, guitar, sax, keyboards, and bass (one each).
- Before returning
to Texas in the mid-90s, Ronald Shannon Jackson was in heavy demand
as a New York avant-garde session player and group participant.
Among others, he recorded with: composer/trombonist Garrett List;
bassist/producer Bill Laswell on the excellent Basslines;
with Bill Frisell and Melvin Gibbs as the trio "Power Tools;"
with John Zorn on his conceptual blues piece "Two Lane Highway"
featuring Albert Collins; with Murray, Ulmer, and Jamaaladeen
Tacuma as the "Music Revelation Ensemble;" and with
Peter Brotzmann, Sonny Sharrock, and Laswell as "Last Exit."
Nevertheless, his compositions and performances with The Decoding
Society solidified Jackson's reputation as a unique talent. His
adaptation of Coleman's harmolodics, his appropriation of a multitude
of musical styles, his incorporation of blues and funk within
an improvisational context, and his energetic performance practice
have undoubtedly influenced, even if indirectly, the newer generations
of "jam bands" and related styles. Yet the sound of
The Decoding Society, particularly from 1980 through 1987, remains
as unique as ever. The combination of this band's wonderful and
often exotic rhythms, melodies, and timbres has yet to be duplicated.
The music of The Decoding Society is permanently relevant, and
it also marks a fertile period of creativity that deserves the
reinvestigation that the Knitting Factory has broached with this
Davis, Francis. In the Moment, Jazz in the 1980's. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1986. [currently out of print]
Gary. Rhythm-a-ning, Jazz Tradition and Innovation in the
'80's. New York: Oxford Press, 1986. (Includes "The
Egg in the Meatloaf," an essay focused on Ronald Shannon
Jackson.) [currently available via Da Capo Press edition, August
John. The Freedom Principle Jazz After 1958. New York:
William Morrow and Company Inc., 1984. [currently available
via Da Capo Press, New York, 1990]
Mandel, Howard. Future Jazz. New York: Oxford University
Gene. Dancing in Your Head, Jazz, Blues, Rock, and Beyond.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.