A Good Stew: A Look at Javon Jackson
Fine art often doesn't fit into categories, swim in schools, break boundaries or follow theoretical trends. It is simply just good. Tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson is a subscriber to that school. A subscriber, that is, to the school of thought, popularized by Ellington that says there are two types of music: good music and the other kind. This refreshing approach to the music can result in rewarding projects such as Jackson's new release, set to be in stores by October, entitled Good People. The record, named after the title cut which was penned by the 31-year old tenor man in honor of his parents, is full of all that's good, even great: good musicians, good feeling, good music, good intentions, good execution, good results. This over abundant amount of goodness is helped by the fine ensemble that Jackson has put together for his past two records which features a highly unusual yet cohesive and effective blend of instrumentation. Guitarist Fareed Haque, bassist Peter Washington, drummer Billy Drummond, percussionist Cyro Baptiste and producer extraordinaire, Craig Street (the man behind Cassandra Wilson's last two outings) are again on board, after first recording last year's A Look Within). For Good People, added to the mix are superb guitarist Vernon Reid, a veteran of Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society and Living Color and organist John Medeski of the trio, Medeski, Martin and Wood. These last two guests add a fine bit of color to Jackson's musical quest. The musical quest that Jackson is on is exemplified by his refusal to put himself in a musical box. Why limit yourself?, he says... I'm trying to find individuality... I'm putting myself in some different situations so that I can find myself through other vehicles." The addition of Reid and Medeski was not an accident says Jackson: "When I'm writing, it always helps to know who's going to play... When I wrote for the new record, I knew what I wanted. For instance, I envisioned performing with Vernon, and immediately thought that doing something by Santana would be fun." Jackson is well aware that there are some supposed purists who will react with indignation and rolled eyes at the concept of Jackson doing Santana material as well as that composed by Frank Zappa, as was the case on Jackson's previous record. These same people miss the obvious point that Bird and Miles along with many others recorded the pop songs of their day and transformed them from what could be called low art to high art. Is there a better example of this then Coltrane redefining how "My Favorite Things" is heard and played? How can they explain Miles doing "Surrey with the fringe on top?" Lee Morgan doing Beatles songs? Lester Bowie doing Michael Jackson material? Some may turn up their nose at Jackson's willingness to travel wherever his muse takes him, even if this time, it's far from the safe shores of traditional jazz. But Jackson has several great role models, Art Blakey, with whom Jackson played with for a number of years, and of course, Miles Davis. "I'm trying to find another way for me to deliver this stuff, meaning jazz, acoustically.. There's a whole world out there. And for me to be hanging out with Vernon is not much different from Miles hanging out with Jimi Hendrix." Says Javon: I'm using different material that I've come across over the last four years, stuff from Santana, Tony Williams' Lifetime, Brazilian music... I credit my producer, Craig Street for this to a degree. When we started working together, he and I just started trading tapes of all kinds of music that we liked and it just kind of opened things right up. he is great. I have really enjoyed working with Craig." In addition, Jackson explains, There are too many emotions in my body to just deal with the music of the 40's, 50's and 60's. I do have to keep the jazz banner held high and keep my integrity, but if you listen to Art Blakey, what he was doing with Billy Eckstine and what he was doing at the end of his life are very different. I have to stay on that sort of track."
Jackson does not need to prove his credentials as far as being a traditional jazz player. After spending some time at Berklee College of Music in Boston, a move says Jackson, that was inspired by advice from Branford Marsalis, he got gigs with the likes of Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard, and of course, Art Blakey and his latest crew of Jazz messengers. Of the experience with Art, Jackson explains, "At Berklee, you receive a lot of great tools and information. That is important, granted... but I must say that I learned more in one week with Blakey, then anywhere else in my career. Basically, I went to the University of Blakey... That was Harvard, an intro to how it is supposed to be. I in some ways, really became a man working with Art and I cherish that experience. Given the history of jazz, that's how everyone started: Ella with Chick Webb, Art Blakey with Billy Eckstine and so on. Like them, I was able to get to speed by working my way up. Coming through a real lineage has helped me solidify and authenticate my spirit of the music. I've got a clear sense of my ancestral stream and the living language of the music."
Jackson, clearly has a vision of Jazz that is evidenced by his music. Rather, than looking at this art as a museum piece, he is taking the music in a forward trajectory. By using the example of the difference in Blakey's groups over time, Jackson is, by way of his last two records and his current working group (the same nucleus that is to be found on the records), forging ahead in a very forward looking direction. "I know that I am probably in for a bashing," Jackson jokes, referring to those critics that will pan him due to his choices of material and instrumentation on Good People. " But I can't worry about that." What Jackson is talking about is how this eclectic mix of original compositions, straight ahead jazz, and a few more world influenced cuts will be treated by the jazz press. The combination of Jackson's sound, which these days is more reminiscent of Coltrane, then the usual comparison to Joe Henderson, and the fact that most of the tunes on Good People stretch out from traditional jazz fare into the realms of jazz-funk and even rock, will surely earn him new fans and exposure, while at the same time, leave some critics locked in a raised-eyebrow posture. There is nothing wrong with that. If jazz is about creative exploration and individual expression, then Javon Jackson, as evidenced by Good People is a very important shining light in the jazz world, and hopefully, will be an influence to younger players as he shows how important it is to have great mentors who were able to hand down the real messages about this wonderful music.