Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society

  • Eye on You [About Time, 1981] B+
  • Nasty [Moers, 1981] A-
  • Mandance [Antilles, 1982] A-
  • Barbeque Dog [Antilles, 1983] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Eye on You [About Time, 1981]
There may be drummers who can cut Jackson, but nobody else moves so fluidly from free time to on-the-one. I only wish he'd indulge himself with a drummer's record. The music is never less than dense and jumpy, and he's keeping things compact--eleven cuts total. But handing your themes over to (guitarist) Bern Nix and (violinist) Billy Bang is no way to show off your composing. Stanley Crouch has a word for this kind of thing: eso, as in esoteric. Pretty good eso, sure. But even in my head I don't dance to it. B+

Nasty [Moers, 1981]
"Small World," featuring the unison horns of Lee Rozie, Charles Brackeen, and Byard Lancaster, is the most fiercely swinging track in all avant-fusion. After that Jackson carries rhythm and melody on his kit for ten minutes as the vibes swirl around him, and then there's a haunting harmolodic blues. But overdisc it's back to eso. The title piece is OK if you can't get enough Ornette homages, but "When We Return," which takes up almost a third of the record, is your basic freebie-jeebie noisemaking session, more accomplished than "Radio Ethiopia" but less endearing conceptually. By now, Jackson's supposed to know better. A-

Mandance [Antilles, 1982]
Despite Jackson's Blood pedigree and predilection for electric plectrists, I'm hard-pressed to describe this as "rock" or even harmolodic funk, because while 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. Guitar hero: Vernon Reid, who also gets to play banjo. A-

Barbeque Dog [Antilles, 1983]
He wouldn't connect without Shannon writing the tunes and swinging the funk, but the star is Vernon Reid, especially on straight Les Paul--he articulates with so much more delicacy and incisiveness than the perfectly suitable horn players, who often serve as his scrim. On Stratocaster he's power-packed. On guitar synth he's fusion or wah-wah. On banjo he sets down and thinks for a spell. On steel guitar he sounds like he's playing something else. And on "Say What You Will" he writes the tune himself, reminding us who's the leader. A-