Soul-Sustaining Music from Javon Jackson

By Mel Minter for Musically Speaking


In his capacity as a faculty member of The Hartt School and director of its Jackie McClean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford, saxophonist Javon Jackson invited activist, educator, and poet Nikki Giovanni to speak to students in February 2020. When she’d finished her talk, she heard Steal Away, the Hank Jones/Charlie Haden album of hymns and spirituals, one of this household’s favorites, playing in the auditorium. She wanted to hear more of it, which gave Jackson the idea to do an album of hymns and spirituals. He asked Giovanni to select 10 tunes, and she sent him the selections a few days later. The result is The Gospel according to Nikki Giovanni, whose healing powers testify to the songs’ enduring capacity to refresh the soul.

The 10 hymns and spirituals on Javon Jackson’s The Gospel according to Nikki Giovanni are deeply rooted in African American culture, having provided comfort and hope through a long history of oppression. Their presentation by saxophonist Javon Jackson demonstrates their deep, timeless ability to deliver support in troubled times.

Jackson allows the melodies to speak for themselves, delivering them with elegant simplicity in a restrained, almost understated fashion, often just behind the beat. In his solos, he unpacks the arguments for hope wrapped within the tunes, lifting them into an abstract but soulful realm. His tenor tone—so deep and round and warm—carries a healing timbre that recalls that of John Coltrane, and it magnifies the power of this music. Then, there’s his command of the instrument, which allows an exceptionally nuanced expression. On “Night Song,” listen to him shape the meaning and impact of a long-held tone with a swinging vibrato and subtle timbre manipulations. (Giovanni makes a disarming guest vocal appearance on this tune, which was a favorite of her friend Nina Simone.)

Jackson is joined by an immensely capable and sympathetic crew—Jeremy Manasia (piano), David Williams (bass), and McClenty Hunter (drums). Manasia brings a wide range of influences to bear. You’ll hear a tribute to Monk as he enters his solo on “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” McCoy Tyner voicings on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and touches of a lyricism throughout that recalls Bill Evans. The Jackson/Manasia duet on “Lord I Want to Be a Christian” shines bright, capturing the sense of surrender to a higher cause. Hunter knows how to swing, and you hear it from the opening moments on the first track. Williams walks with the best of them—listen to him loping along on “Mary Had a Baby, Yes Lord” and vining around the line on “Wade in the Water” (political scientist Christina Greer delivers a reading from Giovanni’s bracing poem “A Very Simple Wish” on this track). Williams and Hunter bring just the right buoyancy to the sunny calypso rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which includes an unmistakable quote from Mr. Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” and they’re right there with him when Jackson brings an island breeze to play in the swinging and carefree version of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

You’d be hard-pressed to name another saxophonist who could deliver this material with anything approaching the depth that Jackson, along with his crew, brings to it. Whatever your religious affiliation, or lack thereof, you can count on The Gospel according to Nikki Giovanni for its generous warmth. It will water that seed of hope that you might have thought lost.