Javon Jackson has a lengthy history as a leathery-toned and warm tenor-sax man, yet it’s his role as an educator that steered him toward the hymnal, holy roll of his newest album. As faculty at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford and director of its Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz, Jackson invited Nikki Giovanni to speak to his classes. Her work lit a fire in the saxophonist, prompting him to ask the poet to curate an album of her most deeply revered gospel hymns.
Make no mistake: Jackson and his usual crew (pianist Jeremy Manasia, bassist David Williams, drummer McClenty Hunter) don’t play these traditional religious numbers so reverently. Though Jackson and Manasia maintain an erudite Coltrane/Tyner-like hold over “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” the rhythm section plays it hot and haughtily, like a stripper-pole anthem. To perform spirituals such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Mary Had a Baby, Yes Lord,” associated with the esteemed likes of Mahalia Jackson and Sonny Rollins, gives Jackson—the educator, the quartet leader, and the saxophonist—a deep sense of history to go with his own fresh association on Bible verse.
Giovanni herself takes association one step further, as she makes an appearance, singing on the loveliest of holy moments, “Night Song.” While Jackson breathes softly the sweetest of slow subtones, Giovanni shushes her way through a walk with friend Nina Simone, painting a portrait of restless minds seeking solace and laughter. It’s a gorgeous, fragile moment between the curator and her instrumental charges, and one indicative of the spirit of their collaboration.