Javon Jackson with Nikki Giovanni & Nnenna Freelon
The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni
The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni connects with the ancestral stream while putting a jazzy new perspective on timeless hymns and spirituals. 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, released 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.”