Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The storyteller: Ronald Shannon Jackson

Right now my listening compass points to Ronald Shannon Jackson, specifically the Decoding Society LPs Mandance (’82) and Barbeque Dog (’83). Above you'll find a contemporary performance by the band, which then featured Vernon Reid and Melvin Gibbs; the piece is "Yugo Boy" (from Barbeque Dog), which, strangely, doesn't appear on the live album sourced from this same gig.

Jackson's drumming fascinates me in general, but during this period, he really homed in on a concept and sounded as much like himself as he ever has, if that makes any sense. I love the way he fixates on these particular pet feels and juxtaposes them in a modular way. One of the feels in question is that beat you hear him playing at the beginning of "Yugo Boy." Jackson has a manic way of going at the hi-hat, just hammering on those sixteenth notes, working up to an open-cymbal release at the end of every measure; meanwhile his bass-drum foot does a stylishly simple dance. He plays these sorts of beats constantly in the ’82/’83 Decoding Society material ("Gossip," also from Barbeque Dog, is another great example), and I love the way they contrast with what the horns are doing up top, a bedrock rhythm hurtling forward as the melody takes a more leisurely stroll. It seems to me that that was the core principle of the Decoding Society: Lay down something propulsive or funky underneath and then let the song waft along in its own ethereal space.

"Yugo Boy" is a fairly static piece, rhythm-wise (though I love the way that Shannon shifts to the ride for the bass solo at 1:45 in the vid above, offering a textural twist while keeping the pulse racing), and Shannon often seemed cool with this sort of approach: picking one beat and sticking with it throughout a piece. But there are some great examples of him playing in a more suite-like style, where compositions would feature several distinct movements and his drumming would follow suit. "Alice in the Congo," the last track on Mandance, is a good example of this. He starts off with this insistent march pattern—half-time, but again with this almost hyperactive urgency to it, thanks to steadily chomping eighth notes on the hi-hat. These types of beats are a signature of the Decoding Society, and they're what give this band such a buoyant feel; lately I've been struck by the unabashed unhipness of these beats. They're so wonderfully nonvirtuosic, almost leaden, not beholden whatsoever to the tradition of fusiony flash, as exemplified by Billy Cobham or any of the other principal drummers of that movement. Shannon is more about this sort of stubborn folksiness, these beats that lope along with a stick-in-the-mud sluggishness. Again here you hear that weird foreground/background tension, the drums just cruising ahead like a determined bulldozer while the horns do their slurry, languid dance up top. And then at :58 seconds, the band snaps into a bridge-ish section and without worrying about any sort of hip transition, Shannon drops into that wired sixteenth-note hi-hat frenzy, very similar to the "Yugo Boy" beat. Then back to the march beat for a bit, and then around 1:49, when the bass solo begin, he drops way down dynamically and enters this sort of trance-swing, built on fluttering snare-drum ghost notes, tense quarter notes on the hi-hat and these darting, delicate patterns on the ride and crash cymbals. It's a beautiful textural shift.

Shannon frames each little episode in the song with its own distinct beat. When Vernon Reid's guitar solo begins at around 3:05, the leader starts kicking up a little more dust, flirting with a heavy backbeat feel, livened up with splashy fills and digressions. Then after a brief horn fanfare around 4:15, he brings back the initial parade-march beat for a bit, before segueing into this climactic build-up—a gradually accelerating snare roll that starts out (around 5:16) feeling wonderfully draggy, like an anvil tied to the feel of the nimble horn players, and builds into a super-dense buzz. Throughout "Alice in the Congo," you really feel the intertwined-ness of Shannon the composer and Shannon the drummer; he's very keen as a writer on mini set changes and as a drummer on highlighting these shifts. It's not just "Play a head; play some time; play a head"; the best of the Decoding Society pieces from this period ("Harlem Opera," which concludes Barbeque Dog, is another one in this vein that I adore) have a story to tell, and Shannon makes sure that as a drummer, he's upholding the narrative integrity. It's almost like each of these different feels that he favors (the racing sixteenth-note hi-hat stuff, the draggy march beats, the dreamy and diffuse ride-cymbal-heavy sections—a set of approaches that, along with a plodding blues feel, also staked out the rhythmic territory for Last Exit) is its own character: a puppet to be animated, an accent to assume.

With many drummers I love, I think of them as speaking in a unified voice, relating at all times to a single overarching concept, but with Shannon, it's a bit different; I love the way he slips in and out of different dialects, juxtaposes them, shuffles them, constructs a sequence and progression. It's one of the reasons his music, especially from this period, feels like a bright and colorful world that you step into. The marvelous piece titles, the unexpected set changes—it all contributes to this sense that you're sitting at the foot of a master storyteller, one who's not simply executing a style (jazz, rock, fusion, what have you), not just playing music, but bringing a scene to life in sound—decoding it, maybe, leaving its wonderment fully intact.

P.S. You can purchase various CDs and DVDs (though not the ones mentioned above) at Shannon Jackson's website. If only he were MP3-equipped…

P.P.S. I hope it isn't too long before Shannon Jackson performs in NYC. He still plays frequently in Europe; I'm seeing here that he'll be in the Ukraine (!) with a new quartet this coming April.

P.P.P.S. Destination Out has served up some choice Shannon material in the past, e.g., this post, which sparked some lively discussion, as well as a cameo from the man himself.


Melvin Gibbs said...

Glad to see you're giving RSJ some love. I must say though, it always bothers me that the video crew couldn't figure out that I was the one who was soloing for most of my solo AND they managed to miss my slide stuff! grr!

bshazaaam said...

Nice to see more coverage of 80s jazz, especially the free funk axis. I've definitely found it to be the most underrated/misunderstood decade for jazz. I also saw in your Twitter feed that you've recently come across the album Quest II. What a great, and unfortunately little known, album. I was fortunate enough to discover it when I need a "Q" album for an ABCs of 80s jazz list I was putting together.