Picks and Pans Review: Decode Yourself

UPDATED 05/13/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/13/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society

After listening to Jackson's music for a while (this is his sixth album), you can't help wondering, "What's he mean, Decoding Society?" If anything, the way he takes pop-and-jazz genres and twists them together like so many sausage-shaped balloons, what he seems to be doing is encoding. In such a typical Decoding Society piece as Behind Plastic Faces, a slow, stately, often Oriental-sounding melody is carried like a sedan chair above the busy, bustling feet of the rhythm section. In Thieves Market the key element is Jackson's spare, hard drum crack on the first and third beats, an elongated ticktock. In Behind Plastic Faces it's Jackson again, this time with a mincing rhythm played on what sounds like a drum with a loosened snare or some kind of rattle—like many sounds Jackson gets, you feel you've never heard its exact like before. The mystery of Jackson's ideas is well understood by his sidemen. Akbar Ali's violin solo in Thieves Market is avant-garde fiddling with a hoedown heart; Vernon Reid's comically archaic fuzz guitar solo enlivens Decoding. Snake Alley should be mandatory listening for all rappers; nobody's done more with the redundant hip-hop beat than this, and that includes Herbie Hancock. Now has Jackson decoded rap music, liberating it from its hermetically sealed cylinder of genre? Or has he encoded it into his own tantalizing, visceral, irreverent and highly personal language? To say you're encoding is to admit you're on your own little island. To say you're decoding is to say you're creating something universal. Listeners will make up their own minds. More than any of Jackson's other albums, Decode Yourself will repay that effort handsomely. (Island)

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