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A Double Dose Of Ronald Shannon Jackson's Free-Funk

By Kevin Whitehead | NPR
Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Two fine albums by drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society, Man Dance and its sequel Barbeque Dog, are now available again as downloads, after being out of print for ages. Fresh Air critic Kevin Whitehead says they're prime examples of the 1980s' so-called "free-funk" movement.

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Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society's Man Dance and its sequel Barbeque Dog are now available again as downloads, after being out of print for ages.



This is FRESH AIR. Jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson died last October at age 73. In the 1970s, he played in saxophonist Ornette Coleman's electric band "Prime Time." Then Jackson founded his own band the Decoding Society. Two of that group's early releases are now available again as downloads. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says he's been waiting for their return.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society with the title track from "Man Dance." It's one of two fine albums the band made in the early '80s now available as downloads from Verve after being out of print for ages. "Man Dance" and its sequel "Barbecue Dog" are prime examples of the '80s' so-called free-funk movement. The spiky Afro-pop guitar, two grumbling electric basses and melodies played in several keys at once are all out of Ornette Coleman's band Prime Time. But the Decoding Society had a lazier lope and wasn't quite so eager to fill all the available space. Compared to Prime Time, it is a pop band - playing short or shortish numbers that spotlight the melody.


WHITEHEAD: Ronald Shannon Jackson's "Barbecue Dog" with Vernon Reid on guitar, before he found greater fame with the black rock band "Living Color." Reid is part of the core crew in this six or seven piece outfit, alongside saxophonist Zane Massey and bass guitarist Melvin Gibbs and Bruce Johnson. Shannon Jackson, like other '80s composers, abstracted looping structures from West Africa's intersecting rhythm cycles. His tune "Iola" is built in layers, the bassist play different lines - one twice as long as the other as a horn melody moves in slow-motion over the top. Vernon Reid plays banjo, an African-American instrument rarely heard in creative music because of un-cool associations with minstrelsy and Dixieland. But it's thin, percussive snap cuts through and helps keep the texture transparent.


WHITEHEAD: There's a hint of a New Orleans march in Shannon Jackson's drum beat on "Iola." A few modern jazz composers dearly love their marches, including the drummer's old boss, Albert Ayler. Jackson came from Fort Worth and his interest stems from a venerable Texas tradition - playing halftime music at school football games.


WHITEHEAD: The Decoding Society's music mostly wears very well, though "Barbecued Dog" has a couple of quasi-East Asian numbers that flirt with Hollywood stereotypes. Even so, I like how trumpet and soprano sax mimic Chinese double reeds on "Yugo Boy" with an assist from Vernon Reid's guitar synthesizer. That tune also shows how Jackson's free funk upended a typical jazz bands hierarchy. The rhythm players improvise it well - romping on the groove, while the horns stick to the melody and support.


WHITEHEAD: With his Decoding Society, Ronald Shannon Jackson made some kind of universal music - Amero-Afro-Asian-Avant-Pop-March- and Dance music. The albums "Barbecue Dog" and especially "Man Dance" really nail this concept. Later editions of the band didn't always meet that high standard but hitting the jackpot even once in a while is plenty good enough.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for "Point of Departure" and "Wondering Sound" and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society's reissues available as downloads. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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