Originally published in The NYC Jazz Record, May 2022
Javon Jackson, The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni (Solid Jackson 2022)
Nikki Giovanni is a national treasure, a landmark in the annals of the Civil Rights and Black Liberation struggles and a stalwart poet of renown and a certain fearlessness. Presently, just shy of her 80th birthday, Giovanni continues to be tireless in her roles as a Virginia Tech distinguished professor and as a vital literary figure. Her sizeable body of work has primarily focused on the socio-political, but never with a loss to art; she is living, breathing evidence that works of protest need not be fleeting.
Giovanni has a long history as a performance poet within the Black Arts Movement and several of her most important records of the 1970s featuring commanding spoken word with jazz or gospel backing by David Fathead Newman, Cornell Dupree, Richard Tee, Steve Gadd, Bernard Purdie and others were deeply impactful. Happily, the Modern Harmonic label has, just this year, re-released several of these historic works. In contrast, on her new album with Javon Jackson, he late of the Jazz Messengers, Giovanni stands as guide, surely inspiration, who selected the spirituals that comprise the album. While that is of great significance, her direct participation is leveled at only two pieces. High points of The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni include “Wade in the Water” and the single track featuring the poet, “Night Song”. The latter is notable as Giovanni’s only recording as a vocalist. Further, it is dedicated to the late, great Nina Simone, a dear friend of Giovanni’s. A lasting part of Simone’s repertoire, “Night Song” is a Charles Strouse/Lee Adams number from the Broadway musical production of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy (playwright Odets was a fighting cultural worker of the ‘30s). The poet’s voice, appropriately strained with age, easily depicts her long and noble struggle as well as the warm connection to a lost friend. “Wade in the Water”, an allegory of revolution, is here expanded by Giovanni’s “A Very Simple Gift”:
i should imagine we shall lose our souls
since we have so blatantly put them up
for sale and glutted the marketplace
thereby depressing the price
Jackson’s bold-faced tone as a tenor saxophonist is quite the match for this body of work, mid-ranged, he exudes Coltrane’s “Alabama”, particularly with the moody, dark interpretations of “Wade in the Water” and especially “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. Jeremy Manasia’s piano thrives on the Freedom Summer influences, flawlessly capturing the atmospherics, so profound, so grounded, and Jackson organically touches upon the encoded messages built into these works which guided liberation from slavery. While a powerful authenticity is felt in many selections, somehow there are points when the material settles into an uncomfortable, possibly unforgiveable “soft jazz” realm. Most vexing is the bossa nova that became of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. Largely, however, this record makes a relevant adjunctive statement to Giovanni’s earlier albums, Truth is on Its Way, That’s the Way that I Feel and Like a Ripple on a Pond, all of which remain highly recommended.