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‘The Gospel according to Nikki Giovanni’

Saxophonist Javon Jackson and poet Nikki Giovanni collaborate on new album

Scott Haas
‘The Gospel according to Nikki Giovanni’
Nikki Giovanni and Javon Jackson. PHOTO: SHABAN R. ATHUMAN

Nikki Giovanni, one of the great poets of the Black Arts movement in the late 1960s, and Javon Jackson, saxophonist and composer, have paired up to release “The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni” on Feb. 18. It is a first-time collaboration between the two internationally recognized artists and draws upon their literary and musical talents.

Giovanni, well-known for the fearlessness and depth of her craft, and Jackson, whose eclecticism has few boundaries, found common ground in their spiritual upbringing. Both are academics: Giovanni is a Professor at Virginia Tech, and Jackson is a professor as well as director of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford.

“I was just lucky to have to have met Javon,” Giovanni tells the Banner. “He had asked me to give a talk at the University of Hartford two years ago during Black History month. There was a spiritual playing, and that started us talking about our upbringing in the church. It was ‘Steal Away,’ performed by Charlie Haden and Hank Jones.”

Javon Jackson and Nikki Giovanni. PHOTO: SHABAN R. ATHUMAN

Giovanni notes the important links between jazz and the music she heard growing up. “Jazz is built on spirituals, on the music we heard in church,” she says.

Remarkably, Giovanni performs on the album, singing “Night Song,” a tune made famous by her friend Nina Simone, the great singer and civil rights activist. The final words of that song — “Music / By the lonely sung / When you can’t help wondering / ‘Where do I belong?’” in Giovanni’s plaintive voice combines both despair and hope, a critical theme in spirituals.

Jackson, from the musical side, complements Giovanni’s literary perspective. Speaking to the Banner from his home in Hartford, Connecticut, he contextualized the project through the work that brought him to the unique collaboration.

Your work ranges from playing on Tupac Shakur’s “Keep Ya Head Up (Madukey Remix)” in 1993 to playing the saxophonist Illinois Jacquet in Spike Lee’s movie “Malcolm X” to recording with pianist Orrin Evans. Is there a unity of vision?

Jackson: I like different styles, different areas of music. It not only keeps me honest, I find more of myself when I explore. I find that if I get comfortable, I get a little bit trapped. I’ll give you an example: I did a piece based on a Frank Zappa song. You can’t equate it with anyone else, there was no version to go to, and no one had built on that foundation. And how that factors into a jazz album of gospel hymns and spirituals. Like W.C. Handy, ‘Father of the Blues’ — his father was a Methodist preacher. You don’t have to separate church and state.

Tell us about the new album.

Nikki curated the album. She selected the ten hymns we recorded. These include “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” “I’ve Been ‘Buked,” and, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

You recorded with the amazing composer and band leader Art Blakey from 1987 to 1990. Can you say a little about what you learned from that experience that finds a place in your independent career?

There were three things: Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Every time you perform, perform like it’s your last time. And don’t take yourself too seriously.

On March 25, Jackson will perform “The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni” at Scullers in Boston.