I met Shannon Jackson in the summer of 1979, when I was an intern at The Village Voice. I conned Bob Christgau into letting me write some Riffs—it was hardly part of my job—but I wrote on Terje Rypdal, Bootsy Collins, Oregon and Weather Report, if memory serves. (That may be the first time Terje and Bootsy have ever been found in the same sentence, and if so, this would mark the second.) In any event, I met Shannon after one of his gigs at the Public Theater that summer—he was playing with Blood Ulmer, David Murray and I think Amin Ali was the bassist. And I went back to Providence for my senior Amin Ali was the bassist. And I went back to Providence for my senior year in college and also my last year as jazz director of WBRU (under the name “Spottswood Erving”) and Shannon and I stayed in touch in epistolary fashion, and developed a strong connection.
After college I moved to New York City in the fall of 1980 and ended up producing The Decoding Society’s Mandance and Barbeque Dog, as well as Shannon’s own “solo” drum record, Pulse, bringing along my poetic mentor from college, Michael S. Harper, to collaborate with Shannon on a few tracks. In the fall of 1981, I went on a long European tour with the band and got to know everyone pretty well, including, of course, Melvin Rufus Gibbs and Vernon Reid. I also met Bill Frisell in the early ’80s and was absolutely wowed by his playing: I thought he might be the “Thelonious Monk of the Guitar” or something like that. I got to know Bill, grew fond of him, and in due course produced a collision between him and Vernon, Smash and Scatteration, recorded in the winter of 1984 and released in ’85. My internal code for that project was: “Mr. Rogers Meets The Wild Child” though originally that record was intended to be for a trio, with John Scofield being the third guitarist. We just couldn’t make the schedules work.
Over those years, I’d brought Bill to some Decoding Society gigs and brought Shannon to come see Bill play. They were full of mutual admiration. As different as their own music was, they are both, in a sense, country, and there was an easy camaraderie and feeling at the start. I remember Shannon saying, upon seeing Bill play for the first time, “Look here! There’s nobody, there’s nobody that plays a melody like that.” Of course, Bill had heard Shannon’s work with Cecil Taylor and with Ornette, and was really interested in what he was doing, and Bill also admired Melvin’s playing from the Decoding Society gigs and other downtown things.
I remember thinking: if Marx said he was trying to turn Hegel on his head, maybe I could turn the Jimi Hendrix Experience on its head. A very, very limited analogy, but hey, maybe the guitar player could be the pink guy and the rhythm section the darker-than-pink-guys. A powerfully inverted triangle. There was a real racial walling-off in the “avant” music community at that time—what was white, what was black, blah blah blah. I found it hateful then, and still find it so, though of course it makes perfect sense historically. Didn’t Ralph Ellison say he was an integrationist because an “integer” is a whole number? Well, I want to be in that number when the saints come marching. Anyway, that was a part of my thinking in making this project, but don’t get me wrong: it was not some kind of overdetermined racial thing—it was about the music. It’s just that I was cognizant of the larger context, and that some people would see it as somehow “strange” and that’s one reason for choosing Bill’s song as the title track, and the album cover art being what it is. Also strange, in a different sense, because Shannon’s music was so heavy (in weight) and Bill’s was so light, in the sense of ethereal and floaty. I thought this combination might create some heat-generating friction.
I came to the three of them with an idea of a cooperative trio, and making a record as a start. It was always conceived as a trio, a power trio. There was never a horn involved. I don’t know where this story about Julius Hemphill’s involvement came from—you know, that he was was sick and couldn’t make the date, and so an unplanned bare-bones trio recorded spur of the moment. That story is totally, uh, spurious. I’d met Julius at most twice: among other things, he and Michael Harper had collaborated; and for a moment there Bill and Michael Harper had collaborated; and for a moment there Bill toured with him in the same band as Nels Cline wouldn’t ya know it?; and Tim Berne, who I was in touch with, was close to him…so it’s not far-fetched. But there was no discussion of Julius being included. And frankly, after the rather horn-heavy Decoding Society, I specifically wanted this to be devoid of hornage, wanted it to be really open, very spacious, where the deer and the fucking antelope roam. I wanted there to be lots of room for Bill, and yet wanted this not to be one of those trio record where it feels like lead-voice-plus-rhythm-section. I just wanted to couple Bill to this deeply heavy rhythm section and see what kind of freight that train might pull. I thought Shannon’s playing might do something interesting to Bill and that Bill’s playing might do something interesting to Shannon, and that Melvin would be a perfect fulcrum and shifting counterweight: suitably fierce but appropriately subtle and supportive when need be and no road hog he. Anyway, that was my hope. I thought this could be a cool band, and Shannon always used to say, “Nothing beats a failure but a try.” So, why not?
We had one planning meeting about the date up at my apartment on 109th street, the four of us. I asked each of them to bring in three tunes. I asked them to bring in songs which would work for this group and to think of who’d be playing it, whether it was brand new material or something previously recorded. I’d heard some of Melvin’s writing in and around the Decoding Society, really liked it, and wanted him, compositionally, to be an equal partner to Shannon and Bill on the record, and not the less-famous sideman. I wanted 3 + 3 + 3 + 1 = 10 songs. Five songs a side, and song-length songs, not long jams. The last song (the +1) would be a cover, a great song but not played straight, something radically recontextualized. In the end, Shannon brought in two pieces, “Blame and Shame” and “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing;” Bill brought in three, “When We Go” and the title track (both of which he’d released on Rambler in 1985) and the new “Unscientific Americans;” and Melvin brought in three, “Wadmalaw Island,” “A Song is Not Enough,” and “Howard Beach Memoirs.” The title of this last piece was a riff on the popular Neil Simon play (Brighton Beach Memoirs) which had opened on Broadway in 1983, running though 1986 and was made into a movie that year. Of course, the title and piece specifically refer to the Howard Beach hate-crime of December 1986, when three African-American youths were attacked by a gang of stupid young pink people in Queens. One of the victims ended up badly beaten and one ended up run-over by a car and killed while trying to escape.
If memory serves, the trio rehearsed in Shannon’s studio, I think twice, maybe thrice before the recording. I remember being at one or two of these rehearsals, because I made rehearsal notes to prepare for the recording—something I’ve always done when producing. Anyway, the point is that the project was organized and not “haphazard”: the thing was conceived, bantered about, thought out, rehearsed, and then recorded. For all we knew, this might become a real band and this was just the beginning.
For the date, I picked Radio City Studios, up there back behind the hall, in that historic building. I think I was first there watching John Zorn his “Spillane” piece in the summer of ’86. Loved the sound of the room, the historic old-fashionedness of the place. Frisell was on that date, as well as Bobby Previte. (A zillion years later—well, fourteen—I’d re-connect with Bobby to produce his 23 Constellations of Joan Miro, but that’s another story.) Anyway, at the “Spillane” session I’d met the engineer Don Hunerberg, who I think was something like a house engineer for that room, and thought he was something like a house engineer for that room, and thought he was terrific. So when my normal wingman Ron Saint Germain was not available for Power Tools, we happily ran with Don. (Small footnote: I ended up back in the same room six months later, producing “Two-Lane Highway” for/with John Zorn, his “concerto” for Albert Collins, which also was on the Spillane record. I’d written a story on Collins for Musician magazine years before, turns out my cousin in Chicago booked him, and Melvin and Shannon also came in for that date with Zorn and Albert.) Back to Power Tools: I wanted the session to be live, and wanted no editing, no mixing, no overdubbing. It was what it was: like a primary document, like an “early” recording. I wanted the “pressure” of live performance. That band was about a certain kind of pressure….spatial pressure, temporal pressure, rhythmic pressure, tonal pressure, the pressure of personalities and personal history. I knew we could go for multiple takes of every piece, and just settle arguments that way.
Regarding the group piece: “The President’s Nap.” It happened like this: Shannon was in the studio, warming up, playing by himself, with Melvin and Bill in the room getting ready. I liked what Shannon was playing and told Don to “roll tape” though we were beginning to roll early brutal digital two-track bits, even if tape was what we had in our minds. And I just gestured to Melvin and then Bill to start playing, and they did. The piece developed a beginning, a middle, and an end, just naturally. Game, set, match. It was a free improvisation, completely unplanned and obviously untitled. I offered “The President’s Nap” as a title, given that it’d recently come out in the press—sometime in Reagan’s second term—that the President liked to take a daily afternoon journey to dreamland. Given what Reagan did while awake, perhaps this was not so harmful. The title cracked everybody up, because obviously it spins the music in a slightly comically noirish if not horrifying direction, and it stuck. (Bill’s “Unscientific Americans” was also untitled as of the session, and I suggested that title after the Roz Chast 1986 book of cartoons of the same name. Bill is something of an amateur cartoonist in his own right, and is Roz Chastian himself, it might be fairly said.)
Regarding “Unchained Melody”: yeah, not to sound Monty Pythonish about it, but that was my idea, eagerly seconded by Shannon. I didn’t want to cover a song that was part of the jazz canon and that had been covered extensively by contemporary jazz artists, or even those in our immediate past. And I was also looking for a song that I thought Bill could really just rip into, and undo. Here was a song that had been covered a gazillion times, but you know, Alex North wasn’t in the Ella Songbooks and wasn’t of any interest to Wynton and his crowd, and it wasn’t like covering yet another Monk or Wayne tune. It was a pop song (though Al Hibbler did it way back!) recorded first as a theme for a mid-’50s prison movie, Unchained, hence the “Unchained” in the title. Of course it’s famously a love song, but I was also thinking more abstractly of the Hy Zaret lyric “and time goes by, so slowly / and time can do so much.” Ain’t it true, Shannon, Melvin and Bill? Well, you don’t have to be a musicologist to see how that sentiment might play into this record and this band. Shannon’s point of reference was the Righteous Brothers’ version. For me, it was the Willie Nelson version on his classic Booker T. Jones-produced Stardust record from 1978. I’d gone out on the road with Willie (I think in 1982) for a Musician piece, and really came to love his way with standards, and of course Shannon is as Texas as it gets, and I played Willie’s recording for him, which knocked him out. (Willie then led me to Miles Davis, and later to We Are The World—everything overlaps with everything else—but those are other stories.) Extra-elliptical aside: “Righteous Brothers” became my inside code back-up name for this band, if “Power Tools” couldn’t be used, but that would have been pretty darn “meta” at the time and I can imagine what the legal bills might have been like. Again, this would have gone against the racial stereotyping in about three ways.
Anyway, I am very much a non-musician—I pretty much don’t know anything about music from a technical standpoint—but occasionally I have an architectural or arranging idea and “Unchained Melody” was such a case. I wanted Shannon to open with solo voice, and to play the song as a march. Always loved Shannon’s way with marches and martial beats and guessed that in hundreds of covers “Unchained Melody” had never been played as a march. (And this was before the U2 cover and the Cyndi Lauper cover and before the song was widely and wildly re-popularized by the movie Ghost, which didn’t come til 1990. In 1987, “Unchained Melody” was like a great deserted town, you know a place that had been a boomtown in the ’50s but there wasn’t anybody living there anymore: The Last Picture Show.) And after establishing the march, I wanted Bill to play the melody straight one time through, and then take it out on the next pass—but yet still perfectly melodic in that perfectly Bill way—and then for the song to devolve and dissolve, with Shannon and Melvin dropping by the wayside. In other words to take the title of the song literally, and for it all to end with Bill’s solo guitar voice and his delay. I was looking for what I call “asymmetrical equilibrium,” which is something I look for over and over in art. The little sketch for this arrangment was a “first thought / best thought” thing on piece of scratch paper.
For the cover of the LP, I chose an image from Joel Sternfeld’s book, American Prospects, which would come out the same year as the record. (That book was/is in the tradition of Walker Evans American Photographs of 1938 and Robert Frank’s The Americans of 1958, and I was hoping to emphasize both the Americanness and the landscape quality of the music.) The album cover picture itself was taken seven years prior to the recording and is titled, “Roadside Rest Area, White Sands, New Mexico, September 1980.” It features the body of an old missile; a sign on corrugated fence saying “WOMEN” leading to a ladies’ room; and a view beyond of the White Sands Missile Range, a U.S. Government weapons-testing area for many years. It just seemed, with the title of the record, the music, these three guys, right…although I’d be hard-pressed to explain why. I knew Sternfeld a bit by then and he graciously gave us the image for free, or for some nominal sum.
The band went on to do one fairly brief European tour in 1988. I’d hoped to come along, and perhaps even record more, but could not make it due to my own work schedule as a freelance journalist. I had a story deadline—I can’t remember for what. I heard some real positive feedback about the tour, and have a VHS tape of four songs from one performance in Cologne, Germany: “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” “Unchained Melody,” When We Go” and “Wadmalaw Island.” These last two pieces are available via youtube and I think the other two will surface in the fullness of time. Time goes by, so slowly, and time can do so much.
It’s a sad state of affairs that Island let the LP, and then the compact disc, go out of print. I called the label once to see what I could do about it and got the Kafkaesque run-around. I have no financial interest in the record (typical for my projects) but this put me in a particularly powerless position in terms of prying the thing free. Maybe I could / should re-visit the subject. The analog record sure sounds politely ferocious.
It’s also not just a little bit sad that there was no follow-up record nor no life as a band after that first tour. Bill had his own trio to feed and grow at the time (the wonderful one with Joey Baron and Kermit Driscoll if I’m remembering the timing correctly) and Shannon was increasingly drawn into a different orbit. What can I say? I’ll say it’s a shame that Melvin, Shannon and Bill did not play together again. They could have made beautiful music together.