Concert Reviews

Ronald Shannon Jackson - The Kessler Theater - 7/7/12

Ronald Shannon Jackson The Kessler Theater Saturday, July 7

Wish fulfillment at a concert? I've experienced it a few times: Captain Beefheart in 1976, Muddy Waters in 1977, Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton in 2001. It happened again this past Saturday night, when Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society played at the Kessler Theater.

Before then, I'd never seen Jackson perform live, although I've been a fan of his since '76, when his recorded debut on Ornette Coleman's Dancing In Your Head hit me like an atom bomb. I found it fitting that Jackson's return to the Metromess after a 13-year absence took place at the Kessler, probably the best "listening room" in Dallas or Fort Worth since the demise of Caravan of Dreams, where Jackson regularly performed back in the '80s. Kessler talent buyer Jeff Liles wanted to book Jackson ever since the theater reopened in 2010. Now he can tick that item off his bucket list.

It had been a few seasons - since Boris played Denton's Rubber Gloves back in 2008, to be exact - since I was in a room where the audience was so densely packed with musicians. There was a sizable contingent from Jackson's native Fort Worth, including Pinkish Black drummer Jon Teague; instrument builder and ex-Ohm percussionist Forest Ward; and Hentai Improvising Orchestra's Terry Horn and Matt Hickey. Not to mention uberfan Justin Robertson, who amused Jackson by fanning him with his cowboy hat whenever the drummer stepped up to make announcements, and members of Jackson's family.

Austin's Epistrophy Arts impresario Pedro Moreno drove up for the show, as did Houston free improv maven Dave Dove. Oak Cliff brothers Aaron and Stefan Gonzalez, who play with current Decoding Society guitarist Greg Prickett in Unconscious Collective, were in the house, along with their father and Yells At Eels bandmate Dennis Gonzalez, muso/DJ Wanz Dover (who plays with Prickett in The Black Dotz), percussionist and former KERA air personality Craig Shropshire and Zanzibar Snails/SUBkommander improviser Mike Marshall.

Two-time National Poetry Slam champion Janean Livingston, another Fort Worth native, opened the show with a short but incandescent set of spoken word. Livingston meant to stir up her audience's emotions, so they could be soothed by the healing balm of music, and she succeeded, using a preacher's cadence and her own highly expressive physical presence to rouse, cajole and galvanize them.

After a brief pause, the Decoding Society took the stage. Violinist Leonard Hayward led trumpeter John Wier, who is blind, to his mark at stage right. Bassist Melvin Gibbs - who'd only arrived in Fort Worth from his hometown New York on Tuesday, but has been playing Jackson's music for so many years that he sounded like he'd been in the lineup for months - towered above the audience to the drummer's right. Guitarist Prickett presided over an array of devices, including one pedal that was attached to his instrument. The leader wore a suit of white linen and a backwards pillbox hat, a silver cymbal pendant hanging around his neck. He spoke to the audience briefly before taking a seat behind his expansive drum kit.

The Decoding Society's set opened with Wayne Shorter's 1964 composition "Deluge," which, Jackson remarked later, "a lot of people didn't hear because they were still listening to John Coltrane's My Favorite Things. "Momma Plays the Guitar," which Jackson dedicated to former Decoding Society guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, included a slide episode from Prickett that managed to invoke the spirits of both Duane Allman and Sonny Sharrock.

With his impressive technique, mastery of effects and willingness to take chances, Prickett not only proved himself a worthy successor to his illustrious predecessors, Johnson and Vernon Reid, but also contributed two compositions to the program. The first, "Reese," was dedicated to a recently deceased cousin and created a melancholy, elegiac mood. Jackson, on flute, had difficulty reading a written part. A music stand would have helped.

The second Prickett composition, "He Walked Into the River," was the occasion for some Albert Ayler-esque testifying from trumpeter Wier. While the Arkansan plays Jackson's compositions with aplomb, his burnished tone and fecund flow of ideas, steeped in blues and gospel melodies, often recall the doomed '60s firebrand Booker Little. The Kessler audience expressed audible approval every time he soloed. In fact, they were loudly demonstrative in showing their appreciation for all the players, which was fitting, as Jackson has assembled a blazing galaxy of talent in this edition of Decoding Society - one that can match the intensity of his '80s and '90s bands.

Violinist Hayward, a Dallas native who now lives in Fort Worth, is the least known member of the group, but his instrumental voice, which combines the precise execution of a symphonic musician with the freewheeling spirit of a Mississippi Delta string band fiddler, is a highlight of the current lineup, whether playing in ensemble or soloing, and perfectly suited to Jackson's music.

The presence of bassist Gibbs, who spent a decade in the Decoding Society and also played with Jackson in the groups Power Tools and the Punk-Funk All-Stars, was the icing on the cake. His face-melting fuzz-bass solos upped the ante in the intensity stakes, throwing down a gauntlet that the leader and his bandmates eagerly picked up. His composition "Howard Beach Memoirs" - originally recorded with Power Tools in 1987 - was a full-on electric free-jazz blowout and set highlight.

As brightly as his sidemen shone, it was unarguably Jackson's night. At 72, his presence is both magisterial and elfin. His polyrhythmic thunder takes the innovations of Elvin Jones (13 years his senior) and Tony Williams (five years his junior) to a place more primal and ritualistic. He's a loud drummer, but always musical. His rhythm is highly melodic; when he solos on a tune, you can hear the changes. He seems to have absorbed the whole history of his instrument, sounding at times like a one-man drum line, a timbale player, a Taiko drummer or an entire village of African drummers. His total mastery of his tools allows him to play with unbridled abandon, tapping into something deep and primeval. He seems to conjure music from the air around him.

Jackson's new compositions are as strong as the best of his recorded works. "People We Love" provided an early high point to the set, with the band locking into a monstrous groove. Other pieces showcased the composer's dynamic range. "Concerto for Drums" alternated contrasting sections of pastel lyricism and percussive fury (along with more than a little humor), while "Petals" juxtaposed a tender lament with an earthy samba. A drum solo encore provided closure, but not satiety.

By the way: "Drummer heaven," said Stefan Gonzalez to Jon Teague, as they shared a parting hug. In a just universe, someone would record this man and his band now. And listeners in Dallas and Fort Worth would get to hear them perform again in way less than 13 years. Any takers?

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Ken Shimamoto
Contact: Ken Shimamoto