Javon Jackson with Nikki Giovanni and Nnenna Freelon
"The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni"
June 16, 2021
Co-sponsored by the Black Cultural Center
A historic collaboration between renowned poet and Virginia Tech legend Nikki Giovanni and saxophonist-composer and former Jazz Messenger Javon Jackson has yielded The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni. For this intimate jazz performance, Jackson brings his bold-toned, Trane-inspired tenor lines to bear on a series of hymns, spirituals, and gospel numbers hand-picked by Giovanni. They are joined by celebrated jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon.
About The Gospel According to 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 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.”
“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 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.”
And the 80-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 Giovanni’s home in 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.
About Nnenna Freelon
Vocalist Nnenna Freelon is a multi-Grammy Award nominee known worldwide as a compelling and captivating live performer. She recently starred in the critically acclaimed show Georgia on My Mind: Celebrating the Music of Ray Charles — no stranger to the music of the master singer, she toured with Ray Charles, as well as many other great jazz artists, including Ellis Marsalis, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Earl Klugh, Take 6, and others.
Accolades and awards have abounded — performances at the White House; headlining the Asia Pacific Economic Summit for 300 presidents, premiers, and heads of state; receiving the YWCA of North Carolina’s inaugural “Legend Award” for her outstanding artistry and her dedication to education; and so much more.
This performance is supported in part by gifts from Ms. Kelli Whitfield and Dr. James M. Shuler and Ms. Margaret F. Shuler.
This is the first performance of The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni at the Moss Arts Center and the first appearance by Jackson and Freelon.