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Experimentation is a New York Thing: The Knit Classics(Part 2- Ornette Coleman, Ronald Shannon Jackson and Free Funk)

By Brian L. Knight

In the last issue, the Vermont Review provided an overview of the Knitting Factory’s Knit Classics releases as well as the work of drummer Rashied Ali. Thanks to Knit Classics, much of the exciting experimental jazz that occurred in New York City within the last thirty years is once again available. When the music was originally released, there was little demand so pressings were limited. As a result, the music is veritably unknown to younger generations of listeners. Not any more. Knit Classic’s ambitious catalog is an impressive overview of the many musical styles that comprise(d) the New York City underground/experimental music. While the Knitting Factory has been a leader of the avant-garde for the last fifteen years, this collection reveals some of the music that predates the club/label’s inception as well as some recordings that have become lost in recent years. In this issue, we will re-discover the impact of Ornette Coleman, Ronald Shannon Jackson and the free-funk movement.

The musical development of saxophonist Ornette Coleman is an ongoing and continuous process. From his landmark 1960 album Free Jazz up to his 1987 collaboration with Jerry Garcia, Coleman has been writing his own book on musical theory and practice, known as harmolodics. This theory is based on a steady beat but within irregular meters, playing around multiple tonal centers; numerous tempo changes and an orchestrated sound that put less attention on the individual sound. Author Gene Santora explained "Harmolodics is what Ornette calls his kaleidoscopically hybridized idiom: the collapse of harmony, melody and time in a kind of post Einsteinian universe. No element is dominant; each is developed by the individual voices within the band."

In the early 1970s (please see additional article in this issue about Coleman’s 1970s work), harmolodics took on a whole new form as Coleman abandoned his traditional acoustic lineup and went electric. It was five years after Miles "plugged in", but what Coleman produced was far from "dated." In 1973, Coleman traveled to the village of Joujouka in Morocco where he recorded with the village’s master musicians. While playing with the players of Joujouka, Coleman witnessed the player’s ability to play music telepathically and to improvise as a collective. Upon his return to the United States, Coleman formed Prime Time, which was an electric band that combined free jazz, funk grooves and African music into harmolodics. For the next 12 years, Prime Time had many different lineups in which many of the members moved onto be major players of the New York City jazz sound in the 1970s and 1980s. The most notable were James "Blood" Ulmer, Ronald Shannon Jackson and Sirone who would all become major players in the free-funk sound.

 

Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society

Drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson has always been on the cutting edge of music. Before joining Ornette Coleman, he played with Albert Ayler from 1966-1967 and partook in Ayler’s legendary concerts at New York City’s Slug Saloon on May 1, 1966. During these performances, the quintet would work through full-blown improvisations to variation of New Orleans marching songs. Jackson then joined Ornette Coleman and the recently formed Prime Time to record the classics Body Meta and Dancing in your Head.

After spending his time and developing a style with Ornette Coleman, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson formed the Decoding Society in 1979. Author Stuart Nicholson commented on Coleman’s harmolodics and how they eventually were responsible for the jazz-punk sounds of Ronald Shannon Jackson: "…here was a visceral intensity that was just as focussed as any of his acoustic recordings and seemed to establish a connection between rock and jazz."

Just as Prime Time served as a breeding ground for musicians, the Decoding Society also had its wealth of talented musicians pass through its ranks. Vernon Reid, of Living Color fame, spent three years with Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society. He played on their early albums Eye On You, Nasty and Man Dance. Reid grew up listening to Burt Baccarat, Johnny Mathis and Ray Charles; then he got into the funk of Ohio players and Kool and the Gang. Finally his music taste fell into the lap of Santana, Jim Hendrix, and John McLaughlin. The Decoding society was a perfect mix of all of his interests and influences. In an interview with Howard Mandrel, Vernon Reid spoke of Roland Shannon Jackson: " When I first encountered Ronald Shannon Jackson, his concept went right over my head. The second time I thought, ‘I really like the way this guy plays drums, and I’d like to work with him. A good drummer, whatever he’s din’, is happening………His music takes getting used to; it demands a lot of listening, and a lot of the listener, since so many things are occurring at the same time."

Other Decoding society members were bassist Melvin Gibbs, who plays quite a bit with Project Logic these days, and Bern Nix, who was also an essential component to Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time Both Nix and Jackson played on Coleman’s classic free funk album Body Meta. In his book Jazz Rock, Stuart Nicholson described the Decoding Society: "(the Decoding Society) became a forum for his (Ronald Shannon Jackson) hyperactive rhythmic intensity, mixing electronic and acoustic instruments, rock rhythms and freedom, gritty textures and tightly arranged lines that brought a sense of party to the harmolodic rainbow. Playing his own compositions, he created a slashing rhythmic undertow that fell somewhere between funk, rock and avant-garde coloration."

One of the Decoding Society’s favorite places to play was Fort Worth’s Caravan of Dreams. Fort Worth, Texas was the hometown of both Ronald Shannon Jackson and Ornette Coleman and appropriately, the Caravan of Dreams served as an important venue to both artists. In 1983, Ornette Coleman and Prime Time was the first concert at the Caravan of Dreams on September 29, 1983. The mayor of Fort Worth declared the same day to be "Ornette Coleman Day of the City of Fort Worth." From 1984- 1986, the Decoding Society visited the club and the albums Earned Dreams; Beast in the Spider Bush and When Colors Play captured the Decoding Society in their live element. In 1984, the Decoding Society had a classic lineup highlighted by guitarist Vernon Reid, saxophonist Zane Massey and bassist Melvin Gibbs. Akbar Ali’s violin playing throughout, especially on the uptempo blues of "American Madmen" sounds likes the Mahavishnu Orchestra teaming up with Defunkt. The 1985 Beast in the Spider Bush show features the guest singing of Twins Seven Seven, who was also a Fort Worth native and aficionado of Nigerian and African culture. This affection of African directly translated into the music as the songs feature a funky rhythm, tribal chants, saxophone squonks and Middle Eastern melodies that created an exhilarating and truly original sound. With song titles like "The Ancient Voice of "E"", and " African Sťance, there was little doubt where the influences of these songs was coming from.

In the year following the Beast in the Spider Bush set, Jackson traveled to Africa on his own where he came across many of the same cultures that Twins Seven Seven had studied. The end result of these travels was a collection of new tunes that were highlighted at the Decoding Society’s 1986 concerts at the Caravan of Dreams and are now featured on When Colors Play. For this evening of piercing guitars, inventive polyrhythms and non-traditional melody lines, Jackson was accompanied by saxophonists Eric Person and Zane Massey, bassist John Moody and the dual guitars of Cary Denigris and Masujaa. The album is a perfect combination of funk (the wah-wah guitar driven grooves of "Ella Mae") and free-jazz/rock (the experimental solos laid on top of a propulsive rhythm of "When Colors Play"). Although the band only six players, they managed to create a full orchestrated sound – a lesson well learned from Ornette Coleman. In the liner notes of When Colors Play, Jackson discussed the songs: "This music is a reflection of a person who went on a journey, s soul searching a historical perspective, an identification, and found those things. I really understand much more who and what I am.

In addition to the Decoding Society recordings, the Knit Classics series also contains some Ronald Shannon Jackson solo work. 1984’s Puttin’ on the Dog has Jackson in a trio format with a pianist and a singer, but the majority of the songs highlight simply Jackson playing the drums solo and singing. A little more subdued than his Decoding Society work, but the album looks to Jackson’s roots. The title track is gospel blues while "Geronimo’s Run" sounds like John Bonham at his prime. The album is infused with vocal poems, chants and spoken word that makes this album very unique.

Through the assistance of producer Bill Laswell, Jackson’s 1988 album, Red Warrior, was experimentation with heavy metal. Laswell’s diverse background brought him from experimental bands like Praxis (with Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell), Material and New York Gong (with Daevid Allen) to Herbie Hancock’s techno-indsutrial-jazz funk of the early 1980s to Panthalassa, the remixes of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew recordings. Jackson and Laswell had spent time together in the studio on many instances - Jackson contributed to Laswell’s 1980 experimental solo album, Baselines and the two teamed up with James "Blood" Ulmer for 1986’s America: Do You Remember Love?

In the next issue, we will visit the musicians and teachers that comprised both the New York City Loft Scene and the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York. Until then, visit the Knitting factory at http://www.knittingfactory.com/

Go To Part III