Choreography


IOLA
BELLY BUTTON
THE ART OF LEVITATION

Ronald Shannon Jackson and The Decoding Society
Man Dance
Antilles : 1982

RSJ, drums; Vernon Reid, electric guitar and banjo; Henry Scott, trumpet and flugelhorn; Zane Massey, saxophones; Melvin Gibbs, electric bass; Reverend Bruce Johnson, electric bass.

Of all the neglected jazz from the 1980s, one of the most fertile untapped veins is the music of Ronald Shannon Jackson. He’s best known for his formidable drumming, but his most prodigious gifts may be as both composer and bandleader. His Decoding Society released a series of stunning recordings in the first half of the 80s, melding jazz, rock, and harmolodic funk in ways that recall former cohorts Ornette Coleman and James Blood Ulmer, but remain utterly singular.

Man Dance is one of his finest efforts. Rock Dean Robert Christgau championed the album, noting: “Jackson is the master of every drum rhythm from march to free time, the feel of the record is more swinging than funky, with heavy doses of Tony Williams force-beat. What it really adds up to is a fusion album on which the soloists are forced to think concisely by compositional structures that are more than cute riffs.”

The album also showcases Jackson’s choreographic attention to band dynamics. Plus his ability to write catchy tunes that don’t stint on complexity – and vice versa. Man Dance is a master class in velocity and nuance. The curious album title (and artwork) is balletic, primal, and subtly homoerotic, conjuring images for us of another 80s pioneer of movement – Bill T Jones.

If there are a few dated production touches, the performances more than compensate. In “Iola,” Vernon Reid lays down the smartest jazz banjo lick that we know about. “Belly Button” coils and swaggers as if Raymond Scott had concocted a No Wave dancefloor number. The blissful 90-second “Art of Levitation” lives up to its title.

This work is ripe for rediscovery – by jazz musicians and beyond. For anyone seeking new ways to meld divergent rhythms and electric instruments, to balance solos and ensemble firepower, to fashion compositions whose complexity is masked by their immediacy, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s music serves as a wellspring.

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Be sure to check out Ronald Shannon Jackson’s website, where you can pick up some excellent and otherwise out-of-print albums and rare live DVDs directly from him.

This month’s issue of The Wire features a fine cover story on Ornette Coleman (briefly touching on RSJ) by Phil Freeman.

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