Jazz Great Ronald Shannon Jackson Returns to DFW

Back in the '80s and '90s, when Ronald Shannon Jackson was touring the world with his band the Decoding Society, the legendary drummer-composer was a regular visitor to the Metromess, appearing at storied venue Caravan of Dreams in his hometown of Fort Worth. He was a magisterial onstage presence, stoking the band's fire with a regal countenance, framed by a mane of dreadlocks.

The Decoding Society's final album was released in 1996, and Jackson's last area appearance was at the Dallas Museum of Art in 1999. He's toured Europe since then, including visits in 2005 with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet and 2006 with the Punk-Funk All-Stars. Saturday, the Kessler Theater is bringing Jackson to Oak Cliff as part of its ongoing "Jazz at the Kessler" series, with a new lineup of the Decoding Society and a program of as-yet-unrecorded material.

"The music we'll be playing was written between 2008 and now," Jackson says. "It doesn't have the intensity of the music I was making in the '80s and '90s because as we mature, we change. This will be more subtle."

Recent rehearsal recordings support this assessment. His new compositions unfold at a leisurely pace, with striking variations in color and dynamics. One of the most affecting is a Spanish-tinged piece with a keening violin solo by Leonard Hayward, whose solos and melodic statements are a highlight of the current band. Another features a somber, elegiac melody, played by Jackson on flute, with melodic counterpoint from Hayward's violin and John Wier's trumpet. This ruminative episode gives way to a swirling maelstrom of rock intensity. Throughout, the power, intelligence and sheer musicality of his drumming remain undiminished.

Jackson first came to prominence in the '70s, when he had the audacity to put a thunderous backbeat behind the music of free-jazz innovators Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, as a member of their respective bands. (Coleman encouraged his fellow Fort Worth native to begin composing, and both leaders taught Jackson not to undervalue himself economically.) Anchored by a distinctively primal kick drum rather than the ride cymbal that defined post-bebop jazz drumming, his style bridged the gaps between the juke joint, the nightclub, the schoolyard, the parade ground and the tribal ceremony.

Formed in 1979, Jackson's Decoding Society was always more of a composer's band than a vehicle for percussive pyrotechnics, and served as a launching pad for young musicians such as Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid and Rollins Band bassist Melvin Gibbs, as well as saxophonists Eric Person and James Carter. In the midst of a string of innovative albums that included Mandance, Decode Yourself and When Colors Play, Jackson released Pulse, an album of solo drums and declaimed verse, including his own highly idiosyncratic readings of works by William Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe. In March, Jackson experienced a shock of recognition when he witnessed a Tarrant County College performance of Shakespeare's Richard III, the play from which he recited on Pulse, backed by "avant-garde jazz, with in-your-face drums."

At the epicenter of the improvisational whirlwind that was metallic '80s free-jazz supergroup Last Exit, Jackson would occasionally interrupt the intensity to sing a Jimmy Reed blues song he'd first heard as a teenager, in the Fort Worth dives where he used to stock jukeboxes for his father's record store, and later played his first gigs.

Jackson says he likes to keep the interplay within his groups "as free as possible." While the Decoding Society's instrumentation has varied over the years, it's generally utilized guitar, bass and saxophone, expanding at times to include trumpet, violin and vibes. For 1990's rock-oriented Red Warrior album, however, Jackson dispensed with the usual complement of horns to lead a blazing three-guitar lineup.

Aside from Jackson, the best-known member of the current Decoding Society is bassist Gibbs, a New Yorker who came to prominence in the late '70s as a member of the pioneering punk-funk combo Defunkt. Gibbs was a member of the Decoding Society from its inception until the mid-'80s, and played with Jackson in the group Power Tools, with guitarist Bill Frisell. Along with backing punk rocker Henry Rollins, he's also performed with saxophonist John Zorn, guitar titan Sonny Sharrock and recently deceased ex-Miles Davis guitarist Pete Cosey. He currently co-leads the jazz-rock trio Harriet Tubman.

Also part of the current lineup is ubiquitous guitarist Greg Prickett, who has performed with avant-jazzers like Swirve, Unconscious Collective and his own Monks of Saturnalia, as well as rockers such as Prince Jellyfish, The Black Dotz and Bonedome. He lives with three wolves, which he raised from cubs. This caused some discomfort for Fort Worth violinist Hayward, who's been playing with Jackson for a decade now, when he went to Prickett's home to rehearse.

"Leonard told me, 'I looked in their eyes and saw 10,000 years of genetic processing,'" Jackson says. "He wanted to climb on top of the refrigerator, but they'd probably have dragged him down."

Trumpeter Wier is a classically trained musician, originally from Little Rock, who had given up performing before losing his sight to diabetes four years ago. Two years ago, he resumed playing. "I've been teaching him the melodies by playing them to him on the flute," Jackson says. "He's already familiar with Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown and so on, but he doesn't play like any of them. He's a good listener; for the past couple of years, he's been learning to listen to everything around him, not just music, in a different way."

Jackson underwent heart surgery last year, while in Germany to perform at the jazz festival in Moers, where he's been featured regularly since the '80s. (He had to check himself out of the hospital to play the gig, returning when he was done.) When contacted about this article, he had just returned from attending a wedding in Austin. "These musicians want to rehearse," he explains, "but I have to recuperate. I'm not 60 anymore!" (He turned 72 on January 12.)

"I'm superstitious about performing," he continues. "When you go to a rehab hospital, they have you detox for 21 days. Before I play a concert, I like to practice the songs for 21 days. That way, when you get to the concert, there's a sense of anticipation, but you just do the same thing you've been doing every day, even though you might play the song differently every day. What I won't do is rehearse the day of the concert. When Paganini was getting ready to play a concert, he wouldn't practice; he'd lie in bed in the dark all day."

Asked why he was performing in the area again after a 13-year hiatus, Jackson replied, "Because I have a band. When the music comes, then the musicians come, it's time to go out and play again."

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Ken Shimamoto
Contact: Ken Shimamoto