Tenor Saxophonist Javon Jackson Joins Forces with Renowned African American Poet, Activist and Educator in Historic Collaboration with Nikki Giovanni

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 Winfrey’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 February 18, 2022, 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. “Nina was a friend of mine, and I knew that one of her favorite songs was ‘Night Song’,” she explains. “And even though I’m not a singer, I told Javon I wanted to sing it because I just wanted Nina to be remembered.” Jackson, who flew to Nikki’s home in Roanoke, Virginia, to record her vocal track on the existing instrumental tracks, says, “I sat beside her when she sang it and by the time she finished that chorus, I was deeply moved. I just love the fragile nature of the way she treated it. It was very emotional.”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.”

Giovanni & Jackson, © Shaban_R._Athuman

The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni came about through a serendipitous meeting between the two principals when Jackson, a faculty member of The Hartt School at the University of Hartford and director of its Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz, invited Giovanni to speak to his students there. As he recalls, “Ever since I’ve been at the University of Hartford, I felt that the school would be well-served to bring great scholars of color and scholars who were freedom fighters and activists, if you will. So I brought in Dr. Cornel West, Sonia Sanchez, Angela Davis, and Michael Eric Dyson. Then in February of 2020, I brought Nikki Giovanni.”The renowned poet’s appearance at the University coincided with her receiving an honorary doctorate there. And as Jackson recalls, “After Nikki spoke to the students, she noticed that the Hank Jones and Charlie Haden CD of hymns and spirituals (1994’s Steal Away) were playing in the auditorium. She said she loved it and wanted to hear more, and just then I was hit with the idea. Two days later, after she returned to her home in Roanoke, I contacted her and said, ‘Would you be willing to pick 10 hymns? And that’ll be my next recording.’ She got back to me in a few days and gave me the 10 selections.”The collection opens with the driving shuffle “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” a spiritual recorded by Paul Robeson in 1937. Jackson delivers the melody in a straightforward fashion with golden tenor tones before Manasia “goes to church” on his piano solo. The minor-key “Wade in the Water” is lifted by a mid-tempo swing feel, paced by Williams’ deep walking basslines and Hunter’s steady, syncopated ride-cymbal pulse. After Jackson delivers a robust tenor solo and Manasia follows suit with an earthy piano solo, Christina Greer enters, dropping some wisdom from Giovanni’s poem “A Very Simple Wish.” As Jackson explains, “For this, I reached out to Markeysha Davis, an assistant professor of Africana studies and literature at the University of Hartford. She is really a fan and knows Nikki’s work far better than I do. Nikki’s got 50 years’ worth of poetry, so I didn’t know where to begin. But I sent Markeysha John Coltrane’s ‘Spiritual’ to give her an idea of what we were trying to do, and she came back with that poem.”The quartet’s rendition of the dirge-like “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” carries the somber feeling of Coltrane’s “Equinox,” while their interpretation of “Mary Had a Baby, Yes Lord” recalls Trane’s powerful civil-rights era requiem, “Alabama.” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” one of Giovanni’s favorites from her own Baptist church upbringing, is rendered at a loping beat, conveying a distinctive Southern gospel feel. “A lot of times when I’ve heard this song in church, it’s a little faster, a little more upbeat,” Jackson says. “I wanted to make it slower, where I could really expose the melody a lot more and lay on some of those phrases—so I could be as emotive as possible with the melody, as if I was playing in church with people in the audience.”“I’ve Been ’Buked,” a spiritual sung by Mahalia Jackson in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, where Dr. Martin Luther King also delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, opens with some dramatic unaccompanied arco bass work by Williams before the full band enters with Jackson conveying the melody simply and deliberately. “In a perfect world, I would love to have had David bowing with Paul Robeson singing that melody,” says the leader. “The bow is so beautiful because, to me, it’s close to the human voice in a way.”

Jackson and company render the normally somber “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as a buoyant calypso. In fact, you can hear the saxophonist directly quoting from Sonny Rollins’ most famous calypso, “St. Thomas,” midway through the song. Bassist Williams, being from Trinidad, is uniquely qualified to provide the requisite bounce on this ebullient calypso rendition of this well-known African American spiritual. “Doing that song this way is a reminder that the departure or the transition doesn’t have to be one of sadness,” says Jackson. “We don’t want it to be where the person or persons listening to the CD become downtrodden. We want it to be celebratory. It’s like what Art Blakey always used to tell us: ‘You cry when they come in, and you rejoice when they go out.’ I never forgot that.”

The most intimate piece of the collection is the gentle hymn “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian,” performed as a rubato duet between Jackson’s tenor sax and Manasia’s piano. The quartet closes on a rousing note with a swinging “I Opened My Mouth to the Lord,” which again features Williams’ deeply resonant bass carrying the melody and Jackson in strong ‘speechifying’ mode on tenor sax. Manasia also turns in an exhilarating piano solo here, and even drummer Hunter gets a solo taste near the end of this triumphant closer.  Captured live at Telefunken Studios in South Windsor, Connecticut, the 10 tunes on The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni were all done without the use of headphones, another first for Jackson. “I’ve never done a recording before in a studio where I didn’t use headphones, so it felt like performing a gig,” he says. “We never counted off a piece and there were no endings, where I might dictate or give a direction towards an ending. I really wanted to do it just like if you’re in church, where there’s a preacher talking and all of a sudden the choir begins. So each time, whether the bass would start the tune or the piano or myself, there were no count-offs because I wanted to make it as natural as possible.”

“This music is something that people will probably be a little surprised to see coming from me,” Jackson says. But given the state of the world, it could be just in time. Both poets and saxophonists stand on the shoulders of their ancestors on The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni.



Saxophonist/composer Jon Gordon confronts our bizarre reality with true beauty on his stunning new nonet recording

Truth has become a bizarrely contentious issue in this divisive era of fake news and alternative facts. Still, as alto saxophonist and composer Jon Gordon points out on his latest album, one oft-repeated maxim may be more true now than ever: that truth itself is indeed Stranger Than Fiction. Over the course of ten original compositions arranged for a stellar nonet, Gordon explores the warped modern existence that we’ve all grappled with during the past several months and years.

The music on Stranger Than Fiction, due out September 17, 2021, through ArtistShare, reflects Gordon’s realization that reality takes twists and turns far more unpredictable than any author would dare write. In both his personal and professional life as well as the topsy-turvy world of politics, the composer has been forced to pinch himself repeatedly to confirm that what he was living was cold, hard truth rather than some strange dream (or, quite often, nightmare).

 Jon Gordon is a master. His compositions, improvisation, tone, and technical virtuosity set him apart as an elite musician for our time.”
Brandon BernsteinJazz Improv NY

Fortunately, that awareness has resulted in a great deal of stunning new music, brought to very real life by a top-notch band of peers and former students and fellow faculty from the University of Manitoba, where Gordon has taught for nearly a decade. On Stranger Than Fiction, he’s joined by trumpeter Derrick Gardner, trombonist, and arranger Alan Ferber, saxophonists Reginald Lewis and Tristan Martinuson, bass clarinetists John Ellis and Anna Blackmore, guitarist and vocalist Jocelyn Gould, guitarist Larry Roy, pianists Orrin Evans and Will Bonness, bassist Julian Bradford and drummer Fabio Ragnelli.

“Around 2000, I began to be aware that things were not as I’d hoped in our country“, Gordon said. “For all the troubles of our past, I had hope that the country was headed in a better direction. But I became disillusioned and angered by so many people seeming to cede to a kind of non-reality. And in the last few years, that’s only gotten more apparent.”

The album’s title track was written at the time of that initial revelation, though like the reality it reflects has only grown in scale and complexity with Alan Ferber’s nonet arrangement. The trombonist, who served as an assistant producer for the project, also contributed the bold arrangement for “Havens,” which Gordon originally recorded in quintet form on 2008’s Within Worlds. Gordon himself arranged the remainder of the pieces.

“Gordon has embraced the history of his instrument, carrying with it the ability to extend music as a universal language.” – Wayne Shorter

“Pointillism” opens the album with gradually accruing fragments of sound from the horns, which finally give way to a tense duel between Gordon and drummer Ragnelli as the ensemble surges behind them. “Havens” settles into a taut groove that belies the fact that the band did not record together thanks to geography and the pandemic. Gordon recorded initially with the core quintet, then added horns and guests who recorded in their own homes. The inquisitive title track follows, leading into the deceptively simple, graceful “Dance.” Referring to a wandering mendicant in the Hindu tradition, the brief, through-composed “Sunyasin” reflects the temptation of renouncing the trappings of modern life while realizing the challenges it presents. Jocelyn Gould, a former student of Gordon’s who won this year’s Juno (Canadian Grammy) for “Jazz Album of the Year,” adds an air of enticing mystery with her wordless vocals.

“Counterpoint” is a self-explanatory title for the tune’s intricately interwoven lines and harmonies, while “Bella” sways alluringly, with one of a pair of guest appearances by pianist Orrin Evans. The massed horns of “Modality” allow a ray of hope to peek through the clouds, leading into the stunning fanfare of “Steps.” The album ends with “Waking Dream,” a summation of the surreal experience that attempts to shake the listener out of their somnambulant reverie and, hopefully, into some kind of constructive action.

While recording with a larger ensemble has been a long-held desire, the impetus for Stranger Than Fiction came with a series of Leonard Bernstein concerts which Gordon was involved in for the composer’s 2018 centennial. He found one famous Bernstein quote continuing to resonate with him: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Gordon’s first response to that call to aesthetic arms was 2019’s quartet outing Answer, which pushed towards beauty; on Stranger Than Fiction, he aimed for something even more lush but also more urgent and confrontational.

“I feel like we’re in a crisis on many levels,” he says. “And the only way you deal with these crises – the bullying and lies and authoritarian denial of reality – is by calling it out.”

Gordon comes to this with the first-hand experience, as he documented in his 2012 memoir, For Sue. “I grew up in an alcoholic family,” he recalls. “When you’re dealing with an alcoholic or an addict, sometimes they’ll look at you and say one thing, then 30 seconds later they’ll turn around say the polar opposite. You’re trying to argue with somebody that’s not in reality. I feel like we’re dealing with that as a country and a planet, and it causes the same kind of pain in a family relationship, in a community, in society, and in the world.”

Jon Gordon
A native New Yorker, saxophonist, and composer Jon Gordon was born into a musical family and began playing at age ten. Classically trained, Gordon’s love for jazz was sparked when a friend played him a Phil Woods record. He began lessons with the legendary altoist while sitting in regularly with saxophonist Eddie Chamblee at Sweet Basil. Since attending Manhattan School of Music, Gordon has worked with the likes of Maria Schneider, Ron McClure, Clark Terry, Benny Carter, Phil Woods, T.S. Monk, Bill Mays, the Vanguard Orchestra, Bill Charlap, Ray Barretto, Mark Turner, George Colligan, Chico Hamilton, Jimmy Cobb, Ben Riley, Harry Connick Jr., Bob Mintzer, Bill Mobley, and N.Y. Pops Orchestra, among many others. In November of 1996, he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, judged by Wayne Shorter, Jackie McLean, Joe Lovano, Jimmy Heath, and Joshua Redman. He has released more than a dozen albums under his own name and is the author of three acclaimed books.

Jon Gordon – Stranger Than Fiction
ArtistShare – AS0190 – Recorded October 2020
Release date September 17, 2021

Copyright © 2021 Braithwaite & Katz

New England Conservatory’s Pioneering Jazz Studies and Contemporary Improvisation Departments Present Fall 2021 Season

Highlights include programs and performances with groundbreaking artists including Arturo O’Farrill, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Mary Halvorson, and Dave Holland

Mary Halvorson, guitarist & composer
New England Conservatory’s internationally renowned Jazz Studies and Contemporary Improvisation (CI) Departments announce their 2021 fall season with an array of concerts featuring NEC students performing with faculty and guest artists. Highlights include the NEC Jazz Orchestra with special guest composer/pianist Arturo O’Farrill; Grow Your Art, a music business residency and concert with composer/vocalist and MacArthur fellow Cécile McLorin Salvant; groundbreaking guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson in a residency and concert; NEC’s visiting artist-in-residence, bassist/composer and NEA Jazz Master Dave Holland in a concert with students; as well as CI Salon Nights and Jazz Ensemble Concerts featuring rising star students from the Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation departments.

The concerts are free and open to the public and are scheduled to take place in person as well as be streamed. For information, please visit https://necmusic.edu/concerts.

FALL 2021

Thursday, September 9 | Opening Night
7:30 p.m., Jordan Hall
NEC kicks off the year with a live concert featuring faculty of the Contemporary Improvisation Department, with music from Persian, Appalachian, Middle Eastern, and Jewish traditions as well as jazz, Avant-Garde, new works, and more. The concert will feature Department Chairs Eden MacAdam-Somer and Hankus Netsky, founding Chair Ran Blake, as well as Nima Janmohammadi, Dominique Eade, Liz Knowles, Greg Liszt, Mal Barsamian and many others.

Sunday, September 12 | CI Open Mic
3-6 p.m., Eben Jordan Ensemble Room
Students from the Contemporary Improvisation Department share their music in live solo and small ensemble performances.

Thursday, September 23 | Bassist/composer and NEA Jazz Master Dave Holland
7:30 p.m., Burnes Hall
NEC’s visiting artist in residence Dave Holland performs with NEC students.

Thursday, October 7 | Music of Mary Halvorson  
7:30 p.m., Jordan Hall
The concert, the pinnacle of a three-day residency, features the music of guitarist/composer/improviser Mary Halvorson, as she collaborates with CI students in performances and reinterpretations of her work.

Thursday, October 21 | Panel Discussion with Arturo O’Farrill and Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, moderated by Ken Schaphorst
1 – 3 p.m., Brown Hall

Thursday, October 21 | NEC Jazz Orchestra featuring Arturo O’Farrill
7:30 p.m., Jordan Hall
In collaboration with NEC’s Intercultural Institute, the NEC Jazz Orchestra will present a performance of Chico OFarrills legendary Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite” along with guest Arturo OFarrillAfro-Latin Jazz Suite.” NEC faculty member Mehmet Ali Sanlikol will also join the NEC Jazz Orchestra in a performance of his “Abraham Suite.”

Monday – Thursday, November 1 – 4 CI Salon Nights and Jazz Ensemble Concerts
featuring students from the Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation departments.
7 p.m., Eben Jordan Ensemble Room

Sunday, November 7 | Linda Chase: “For Our Common Home,” An Oratorio for Ecojustice
7:30 p.m., Brown Hall

Monday – Thursday, November 8 – 11 CI Salon Nights and Jazz Ensemble Concerts
featuring students from the Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation departments.
7 p.m., Eben Jordan Ensemble Room

Monday, November 15 | Tradition
7:30 p.m., Jordan Hall
For almost 50 years NEC’s department of Contemporary Improvisation has fostered a community of artists interested in studying music from different cultures and the interactions between them. This concert presents musical traditions from different corners of the world, drawing on their customs, histories, and stories, honoring their roots, and re-examining them from new perspectives. Audiences may hear traditional works from the Mandé West African, Irish, and Persian music ensembles, along with new student and faculty pieces exploring tradition, and what it means to us as we move through our daily lives. The purpose of this concert is not only to contemplate and celebrate tradition but to consider its impact and role in our world today.

Monday – Wednesday, November 15 – 17 | CI Salon Nights and Jazz Ensemble Concerts
featuring students from the Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation departments.
7 p.m. Eben Jordan Ensemble Room

Monday & Tuesday, November 22 – 23 CI Salon Nights and Jazz Ensemble Concerts
featuring students from the Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation departments.
7 p.m., Eben Jordan Ensemble Room

Monday – Wednesday, Nov. 29 – Dec. 1 CI Salon Nights and Jazz Ensemble Concerts
featuring students from the Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation departments.
7 p.m., Eben Jordan Ensemble Room

Monday – Wednesday, December 6 – 8 CI Salon Nights and Jazz Ensemble Concerts
featuring students from the Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation departments.
7 p.m. Eben Jordan Ensemble Room

Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, December 13, 15, 16 CI Salon Nights and Jazz Ensemble Concerts
featuring students from the Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation departments.
7 p.m. Eben Jordan Ensemble Room

Monday – Thursday, November 29 – December 2 | Cécile McLorin Salvant, Grow Your Art Residency 
In a week-long collaborative residency with NEC’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department, pioneering artist McLorin Salvant will discuss lessons learned in the music business, work closely with NEC students and present a concert in which she performs with small NEC student ensembles.

Wednesday, December 1 | Grow Your Art – Pitch Night
Black Box Theater, SLPC
NEC Students & Alumni compete for $5,000 to help develop the business side of their musicianship. A competitive application process modeled on real-world grants, finalists present at this live pitch.

Thursday, Dec. 2 | Concert – McLorin Salvant performs with NEC student ensembles
7:30 p.m., Jordan Hall

Thursday, December 9 | NEC Jazz Orchestra plays the music of Mary Lou Williams
7:30 p.m., Jordan Hall

Tuesday, December 14 | NEC Jazz Composers’ Workshop Orchestra 
7:30 p.m., Jordan Hall
The Jazz Composers’ Workshop Orchestra is devoted to rehearsing and performing works by NEC Jazz Composition students. Coached by jazz faculty member Frank Carlberg, the ensemble gives its composers the opportunity to learn how to rehearse and conduct a band, as well as have their works heard.

The first fully accredited jazz studies program at a music conservatory, NEC’s Jazz Studies Department was the brainchild of Gunther Schuller, who moved quickly to incorporate jazz into the curriculum when he became president of the Conservatory in 1967. Schuller hired Carl Atkins to head the department, as well as George Russell, Jaki Byard, and Ran Blake. Among the “most acclaimed and successful in the world” (JazzTimes), the program has spawned numerous Grammy winning composers and performers and has an alumni list that reads like a who’s who of jazz, while the faculty has included six MacArthur “genius” grant recipients (three currently teaching) and four NEA Jazz Masters. The foundation of its teaching and success begins with the mentor relationship developed in lessons between students and the prominent faculty artists. In addition to its two jazz orchestras, faculty-coached small ensembles reflect NEC’s inclusive approach to music-making, with groups focused on free jazz, early jazz, gospel music, Brazilian music, and songwriting, as well as more traditional approaches to jazz performance. Each jazz student is encouraged to find their own musical voice while making connections and collaborating with a vibrant community of creative musicians, and ultimately to transform the world through the power of music.

NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation program addresses the unique needs of musicians seeking to move beyond traditional boundaries. The department brings together a tremendously diverse group of the world’s finest young artists in a setting where they can grow in a community of composers, performers, and improvisers. With an emphasis on ear training, technique, conceptual ideas, interdisciplinary collaboration, and a wide range of improvisational traditions, the CI program is uniquely positioned to cultivate the complete 21st-century global musician. Founded in 1972 by Gunther Schuller and Ran Blake, the department is “a thriving hub of musical exploration.” (Jeremy Goodwin, Boston Globe).

New England Conservatory (NEC) is recognized internationally as a leader among music schools, educating and training musicians of all ages from around the world for over 150 years. With 800 music students representing more than 40 countries in the College, and 2,000 youth and adults who study in the Preparatory and Continuing Education divisions, NEC cultivates a diverse, dynamic community for students, providing them with performance opportunities and high-caliber training with internationally esteemed artist-teachers and scholars. NEC’s alumni, faculty, and students touch nearly every aspect of musical life in the region; NEC is a major engine of the vital activity that makes Boston a musical and cultural capital.

Copyright © 2021 Braithwaite & Katz