Sunday, October 20, 2013

Goodbye, Ronald Shannon Jackson: drummer/sorcerer

Photograph: Dani Alvarez Cañellas

Like Paul Motian, he was a drummer who became a genre. As Motian did, he established himself as a sideman to heavy players, but it was only when his pen and his bandleading instincts came into play that he truly found himself. There's clearly a thread running from Ornette Coleman's Prime Time to the Decoding Society, the band Ronald Shannon Jackson led in one form or another from 1979 up until his death yesterday at the age of 73: the sour harmonies, the ragged rubato theme statements, the sense of funk being regarded in a funhouse mirror.

But Jackson took this concept far further than Ornette ever did. I'm listening to the title track of 1981's Street Priest right now, and its weirdness is intoxicating. This is a dance band from Mars. Jackson's patented Little Drummer Boy march pattern—rushed, tense, almost antic—giving way to a theme statement that would sound exuberant if it didn't sound like it was coming off the rails, like half the band was meandering off, each player exploring his own orbit. Electric basses thrumming, Vernon Reid unspooling merciless sci-fi shred, the saxophones not squawking in that manly free-jazz way but zipping and snaking around in the upper registers. It's cacophonous but it's also whimsical, bordering on cartoonish. (For a similar sensation, see also: the Lounge Lizards.) And it's unrepentantly of its time.

I think Shannon was looking for a new kind of hip that he couldn't find elsewhere. The results were different, much more knowingly engaged with the language of free jazz, than Miles's electric experiments. (And, it must also be said that while Miles never seemed to have much time for composition, using thematic material as a mere springboard, Shannon was a true writer, a lover of themes and arrangement, a romantic with the pen.) But there's a similar sense of a bandleader wanting to tear down the walls separating art music, popular music, folk music—to cram radical ideas into a format you could wiggle around to, to square the esoteric with the earthy. The same principle is at work in Last Exit, a band to which Shannon contributed the essential soil, the backbone of the blues.

Early last year, I went through a serious RSJ obsession, which had grown out of a specific obsession with the album Power Tools (a favorite of RSJ expert Steve Smith), a fascinating collaboration with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Melvin Gibbs, the latter a Decoding Society mainstay. I haven't thought about RSJ or the Decoding Society much since that time, and I think that's fitting, in a way. Again, as with Motian, Jackson is an acquired taste. As drummers, the two share a certain stubbornness of aesthetic: if Motian wanted to indulge in uncomfortable sparseness or obtuse abstraction, he'd do it; if Shannon wanted to play his borderline-cornball see-saw march-funk patterns, that was what was gonna happen. But, almost as a reward for our patience, each drummer gave us an entire world of music, only obliquely related to their formative work or various outside collaborations, a brand of sorcery that could only be experienced when Motian or Shannon, respectively, was the one in charge, exerting a not-always-traceable but ever-palpable influence. (Theirs were presences that altered the physical properties of the spaces and settings in which they played.) This parallel went right down to the fascination with multiple guitars/basses, and the wizardly use of language: "Look to the Black Wall," "Owl of Cranston," "Fantasm," "Yahllah"; "Sperm Walk," "Boiling Cabbage," "Aged Pain," "Green Coronas." There's a sense in each of wanting to levitate above the stultifying normalcy that can creep into jazz, as it becomes more and more a known quantity, to reinject some of the mystery (in Motian's case) and the vibrant lunacy (in Jackson's).

I never got to see Jackson play live. I sent a few interview requests to the e-mail provided on his website and didn't hear back. But those are selfish regrets. Ronald Shannon Jackson left an enormous body of work, enough to relish and puzzle over for many lifetimes. What I really wish is that someone would undertake a Complete Decoding Society box set; too many brilliant records under RSJ's leadership are still too hard to find. No online database will get you where you need to go, RSJ-wise, but below are a few recommendations.

"Ashes," from Red Warrior (1990):

"Gossip," from Barbeque Dog (1983):

"Time Table," from Music Revelation Ensemble's No Wave (1980):

For the record, my favorite Last Exit album is Köln, which is available on Spotify. In terms of recent RSJ, there isn't much to choose from, but Wadada Leo Smith's Tabligh is outstanding. And here's some tantalizing footage from what I believe was the last RSJ live appearance, last summer in Texas. (Some valuable context here.) Drumming-wise, he sounds as good—i.e., as much a steward of the music in its delicate entirety, not just of rhythm—as I've ever heard him:

P.S. There's some relevant RSJ talk in my Heavy Metal Be-Bop interviews with Melvin Gibbs and Gentry Densley.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Blood-brothers/sisters: Obituary + RVIVR live

I've caught a trio of incredible shows in the past week, surely some of my favorite live music of the year: a pair by Obituary at Saint Vitus, last Wednesday and Thursday, and one by RVIVR at Cake Shop, this past Monday. I've previously gushed at length about each of these bands (here and here), so I just want to make two quick points:

1) Thank God for the small show (club, loft, DIY space, what have you), the principal medium of my lifelong experience both as an audience member and as a performer. Yes, there's always the threat of a body check or a boot to the back of the head, but nothing can top the physical and spiritual sensation of being that close to the source.

2) Thank God for bands like Obituary and RVIVR (pictured above), and for their fans—each party in turn entering into a mutual pact that can only be described as blood-brotherly/sisterly. Obituary, who turn lead—riffs that groove then gallop, and groove then gallop some more—into gold, transforming roomfuls of willing diehards into ghoulish cavebeasts. And RVIVR, who project all their convictions—loves, hates, gripes, adorations, dreams, fears, prayers, spells and vows—as if from a confetti cannon, sowing a vibe that feels more like, yes, a revival meeting than a punk show.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Relishing the tempest: McCoy Tyner at the Blue Note

I saw McCoy Tyner play an extraordinary set at the Blue Note last night, with an extraordinary band. (Go see them tonight—8pm, 10:30pm—if you can.) I'm in my 15th year as a New Yorker, and I'd never heard Tyner live before last night, a fact I can't really excuse. Living here, it's nearly impossible not to take certain legacy artists for granted, but that doesn't make it okay—as a friend I ran into yesterday put it, we do indeed need to see these musicians while we can.

And not just out of some sense of duty or obligation. Because, as I learned last night, sometimes these older players can truly blow your hair back, transcend the mundane, multiset-per-night jazz-club idiom and achieve something otherworldly, dangerous, borderline scary.

I wasn't prepared for Tyner's intensity, nor for his unpredictability. The general framework of the material followed what I think of as a classic Tyner model, known to me via records like Enlightenment (recorded 40 years ago this past summer). It's a sound built on these rolling, cascading vamps, executed at precarious tempos, so that the music takes on the quality of a spiritual quest. This approach scans in my mind as post-Coltrane, but it is literally that, i.e., not as much an aesthetic that Coltrane himself pursued as one popularized by those, such as Tyner and Pharoah Sanders (I think of the vamp section of Pharoah's "Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt") who played with him.

When the band joined up for the opening and closing themes, there was a gorgeously ragged, almost dixieland-ish sound—with saxist Gary Bartz and violinist John Blake Jr. (a new name to me and an outstanding player) keening in the upper register, interweaving their ecstatic cries as Tyner lashed the band on with his rumbling, headlong flow. Bartz's solos were among the rawest I've heard in a jazz club in years. He'd start slowly, inquisitively, and work himself into the realm of expressionism. I don't just mean squeaking and squawking for the sake of it; there was a bit of that kind of abrasiveness, but Bartz's climaxes felt intensely earned, the product of total effort, absolute concentration. As with the rest of the band, there was an engagement, a conviction to his playing that startled me. In general, the pieces (two or three of what I assume were Tyner originals—the vampy selections described above—plus "Moment's Notice" and "In a Mellow Tone," as well as an incredible unaccompanied piano feature) proceeded in an orderly progression of solos, but each musician was so engaged that the format never seemed stale or predictable.

A lot of this had to do with drummer Francisco Mela, who juxtaposes hard-driving flow with turbulent interruption. It's hard not to think of Elvin Jones when you hear his thunderous tom-tom thumps, which egg the band on while simultaneously introducing a sort of random, weather-event chaos. But it was Tyner himself who was the real upsetter. He'd lay out during the beginnings of solos, building dramatic tension, then zoom back in with a flourish—he's a true daredevil, and not sparing with the showboat-ish, one-finger runs down the length of the keyboard—powering the music with a mighty force totally at odds with his frail, 74-year-old frame. Often, the band would lay out in turn during his solos, leaving him to his stormy reveries.

The dynamic range of these passages was enormous. I mentioned weather above in reference to Mela, and that was the prevailing metaphor that kept popping into my head as I listened to Tyner—the man conjures storms as he plays. I've always known him to embody this sort of holy-roller force, but the role he played in the Coltrane band was so oddly thankless at times—i.e., it can often seem to me, in the Classic Quartet context, that his solos are rest stops between the superhuman Coltrane and Elvin clashes; I'm oversimplifying, but his gestures in that group can't help but get swallowed up at times by the maelstrom outside. At the helm of his own band, he embodies this sort of divine will, a mercurial force that ranges from sweet and merciful to scatterbrained and roiling, to downright world-shaking. The band would watch Tyner's solos with a kind of awe; they never seemed to know when (or if) he was going to cue them back in, and both they and the audience seemed to relish that unpredictability.

We were all in the hands of a benevolent wizard, a veteran player intent on, quite literally, moving his audience, by sheer force of will, through both the power he commanded in his hands and the passion in his heart. This was jazz as conjuration—not simply about "swinging," about slickness, but about sending huge boulders of feeling rolling down the mountain, about ensuring that danger and risk took precedence over mere proficiency. There was a seat-of-the-pants quality to this set, a sense of the players constantly overshooting marks and recalibrating, and not caring in the slightest, because that was where the music was leading them. It was the storm and they were the ships, navigating valiantly but also relishing the tempest, inviting it in—as one would a muse—and singing its praises.


Here's a great 2011 clip featuring four fifths of the same band: