Javon Jackson Reinvents Rare Spirituals with Nikki Giovanni’s Help
For his latest album, which hasn’t hit the web yet, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson asked poet Nikki Giovanni if she could suggest ten spirituals that he ought to record. She gave him a list with only a small handful of standards: otherwise, the tracks on The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni are on the rare side. What’s more, the album marks possibly the first time this century that Giovanni has been featured on record as a lead singer.
She picked the ballad Night Song as a salute to her old friend Nina Simone. Since Jackson’s current home state, Connecticut, was locked down, he had to fly to Giovanni’s home in Virginia to cut the vocals. Pianist Jeremy Manasia plays spare, resonant chords beneath Jackson’s balmy lines as bassist David Williams and drummer McClenty Hunter provide whispery rhythm; Giovanni’s weathered evocation of being alone in a bustling crowd packs a wallop.
The first of the spirituals is a straightforwardly swinging take of Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel, a beautiful, stern minor-key tune, Jackson’s cantabile lead giving way to Manasia’s biting chords and elegant rudiments from Hunter.
Of the well-known numbers here, Wade in the Water makes a good segue, Jackson adding some spicy flourishes to his sailing lines, Manasia rising and falling before Christina Greer joins in to speak Giovanni’s scarily prescient words on how it’s up the outcasts and nonconformists among us to keep an otherwise soulless world alive.
The quartet reinvent Swing Low Sweet Chariot as a sly, slinky calypso jazz tune. yeah mon! By contrast, another familiar favorite, Mary Had a Baby, Yes Lord draws a straight line back to somber Birmingham-era Coltrane as well as Miles Davis. The group’s take of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child is much the same, with a regal, glittering, Mulgrew Miller-esque solo from Manasia.
But it’s the obscurities that everyone is going to want to hear. Leaning on the Everlasting Arms is an aptly warm lullaby of a melody, Jackson giving it a calm midtempo swing and a misty-toned solo.
I’ve Been Buked (as in “rebuked”) has special historical resonance since Mahalia Jackson sang it at the Lincoln Memorial on the day of Martin Luther King’s famous March on Washington speech there. Williams bookends it with stark bowing, Jackson letting the clouds drift away before Manasia’s glittering solo
Lord, I Want to Be a Christian, a duo arrangement for piano and sax, has an aptly reverent ambience. The group cut loose with a carefree swing in the closing number, I Opened My Mouth to the Lord, only to wind it out with a wary intensity. Gravitas and unselfconscious depth galore on an album which will no doubt be sought out by jazz and gospel fans alike.