This week’s Cosmic Jazz includes the title track from new release Pushing The World Away – the latest from CJ favourite Kenny Garrett. There is also a tribute to the late Ronald Shannon Jackson who played drums on James Blood Ulmer’s mesmerising and strident workout Are You Glad To Be in America?, which appeared in the UK on Rough Trade Records.
Neil notes: Ronald Shannon Jackson should be far better known than he is at present. Born in 1940 in Fort Worth, Texas (the same city that sired Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, Prince Lasha, Julius Hemphill and more) he was pioneer of avant-garde jazz, free funk, and jazz fusion, appearing on over 50 albums as a bandleader, sideman, arranger, and producer. Jackson and bassist Sirone are the only musicians to have performed and recorded with the three prime shapers of free jazz – pianist Cecil Taylor, and saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler.
Jackson had huge presence both on and off stage. As a drummer, his thundering polyrhythms channeled everything from fatback backbeats and harmolodics into a unique sound that was easily identified as his.
I was introduced to his work in the 1980s through his band the Decoding Society, which played what he called free funk – a mesmerising mix of funk, rock new wave and free jazz styles. Jackson grew up with music – his father had established the only African American-owned record store in the Fort Worth area – and at school he played in marching bands and learned about classical percussion. By the age of 15, he was playing professionally. Jackson recalled that “we were playing four nights a week, with two gigs each on Saturday and Sunday, anything from Ray Charles to bebop. People were dancing, and when it was time to listen, they’d listen. But I was brainwashed into thinking you couldn’t make a living playing music.” Jackson left Fort Worth to study at Lincoln University where his roommate was pianist John Hicks, later to play with CJ hero Pharoah Sanders while the University band included Jackson, Hicks, trumpeter Lester Bowie, and Julius Hemphill on saxophone.
Once committed to a career in music, Jackson made his way to New York where he played with Charles Mingus, Betty Carter, Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, Kenny Dorham, McCoy Tyner, Stanley Turrentine, and others. In 1966 he entered the realms of the truly avant garde and recorded with Charles Tyler and Albert Ayler. He can be heard on the Revenant Records box set Holy Ghost: Rare and Unissued Records (1962–70) which we have featured on Cosmic Jazz.
By 1975 he had joined saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s electric band, Prime Time and can be heard on the influential Dancing in Your Head and Body Meta. A period with pianist Cecil Taylor cemented his avant garde reputation before he formed The Decoding Society at the end of the 1970s. The instrumentation and arrangements, along with Jackson’s compositions and drum style, brought The Decoding Society critical acclaim. I remember that their album Decode Yourself was a Wire magazine record of the year in 1985 – something I mentioned to Jackson when I spoke to him after a concert in London that year. He was unaware of the high regard that the British jazz music press of the day had for his work. The range of The Decoding Society’s sound is huge – it’s electronic, free, dance jazz with wildly changing meters and tempos, all held together with Jackson’s driving drum style. Unlike many of Jackson’s contemporaries, The Decoding Society incorporated pop music elements into its avant-garde approach. Guitarist Vernon Reid (who went on to play with the band Living Colour) recalls, “Shannon wasn’t an ideological avant-gardist. He made the music he made from an outsider’s view, but not to the exclusion of rock and pop – he wasn’t mad at pop music for being popular the way some of his generation are. He synthesized blues shuffles with African syncopations through the lens of someone who gave vent to all manner of emotions…the collision of values in his music really represents American culture.” Of course, guitarist and fellow Coleman alumnus James Blood Ulmer adopted a similar eclectic approach and recruited Jackson for another group that intended to push harmolodics to a new level. Their collaboration was documented on two 1980 releases, the Music Revelation Ensemble’s No Wave, and Ulmer’s Are You Glad to Be in America? Jackson was also featured on Ulmer’s 1987 America – Do You Remember the Love? and 1988’s Music Revelation Ensemble release.
In 1986 Jackson, guirarist Sonny Sharrock, saxophonist Peter Brotzmann and bassist Bill Laswell, formed the free jazz supergroup Last Exit which performed and released mostly live albums until the early 1990s. This was truly punk jazz – a relentless push of manic rhythms, feedback drenched guitar and screeching sax solos that sandpapered their way through a series of explosive riffs. But Jackson’s next project was to be very different – and in the view of this writer (and others) one of the really great jazz trios of the 1990s. Power Tools was Jackson, bassist Melvin Gibbs and guitarist Bill Frisell. They were to record only one album – Strange Meeting. Writer Greg Tate referred to the project as “that awesome and under-sung Power Tools album…in my humble opinion, the most paradigm-shifting power trio record since Band of Gypsys (sic).” Difficult to disagree with this judgment, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a copy of the record. There’s a new copy on Amazon UK for £70-00 but it doesn’t look like the real thing to me!
In 2005 Jackson appeared on trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s album Tabligh with pianist Vijay Iyer and double-bassist John Lindberg but in 2011 after a heart attack, Jackson was to perform more rarely in public. He died from leukemia in October aged 73. Any of his many recordings will give you a taste of Jackson’s propulsive drumming style and provide an insight into one of the unique voices in jazz whose aim was to push at the boundaries of music to create something new.
- Kenny Garrett – Pushing The World Away from Pushing The World Away
- Kenny Garrett – Welcome Earth Song from Seeds From The Underground
- David Murray Infinity Quartet feat. Macy Gray – Be My Monster Love from Be My Monster Love
- James Blood Ulmer – Are You Glad To Be In America? from 7” single
- Frank Wright Sextet – T & W from Spiritual Jazz Vol. 4
- Hank Mobley – A Baptist Beat from Roll Call
- The Gathering – Lately’s Solo from Leimert Park: Roots and Branches of Los Angeles Jazz
Video this week just had to come from jazz drummer hero Ronald Shannon Jackson. Here he is live back in Texas just last year with a reformed Decoding Society featuring original member Melvin Gibbs on bass.