Why would one of poetry’s most revered voices want to curate a jazz saxophonist’s album of gospel hymns and spirituals? “These songs are so important,” says Nikki Giovanni, one of Oprah’s 25 “Living Legends” and a Maya Angelou Lifetime Achievement Award winner for 2017. “They comforted people through times of slavery, and during recent years we needed them to comfort us again. But a lot of the students today do not know about the history of these songs, and they should. So I’m out here putting water on the flowers, because they need a drink.” Giovanni’s historic collaboration with saxophonist-composer and former Jazz Messenger Javon Jackson has yielded The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni, available today on his Solid Jackson label. “The spirituals have been around so long,” says the renowned poet, activist and educator, who came to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s as a foundational member of the Black Arts movement following the publication of such early works as 1968’s book of poetry Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgment and 1970’s Re:Creation. “Some spirituals have been updated and stayed around and some have been lost over time,” Giovanni notes “So for me, it’s just helping to keep something going. And I do it because there’s a need.” Jackson brings his bold-toned, Trane-inspired tenor lines to bear on a series of hymns, spirituals and gospel numbers hand-picked by Giovanni, who was also the first person to receive the Rosa L. Parks Women of Courage Award. And the 78-year-old poet makes a rare vocal appearance on the tender ballad “Night Song,” singing a song identified with her close friend, the late civil rights activist and High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone. Joined by an outstanding crew comprised of pianist Jeremy Manasia, bassist David Williams and drummer McClenty Hunter — the same lineup that appeared on Jackson’s 2018 album For You and his 2020 follow-up, Deja Vu — Jackson interprets gospel staples like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Wade in the Water,” “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” with authoritative tenor tones, deep walking bass lines and an organic sense of group swing. “It’s the first time I worked in a collaborative manner,” Jackson says. “The project is personal for me. I come from a lineage of devout Christians, and that has afforded me the chance to connect with that ancestral stream. Captured live at Telefunken Studios in South Windsor, CT, the 10 tunes were all done without the use of headphones, another first for Javon. “This music is something that people will probably be a little surprised to see coming from me,” he says. But given the state of the world, it could be just in time. Both poet and saxophonist stand on the shoulders of their ancestors on The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni.
I had the complete honor to connect with Mr. Jackson to discuss the creation of this project – the way the seeds were nurtured into the beautiful and important flowers released today. We talk about the choice singing by Nikki Giovanni to honor her friend, Nina Simone – how the interpretation of well know tunes made him feel and how one of the miGhty poet’s poems was placed ever so perfectly in a familiar tune. My words cannot express the depth of cool within these 10 tracks, nor the conversation Mr. Jackson and I share in discussion of it. Please earGrab both and let them take you where they will.