Tenor Saxophonist Javon Jackson Extends the Tradition with Deja Vu
Sequel to 2018’s For You scheduled for an October 2, 2020 release on his Solid Jackson label
A true keeper of the flame, tenor saxophonist and former Jazz Messenger Javon Jackson continues to champion the tradition with his spirited interpretations of some well-known standards on Deja Vu. Recorded during one incredibly productive stretch in 2017 (the nine tracks here are part of 19 overall recorded in just two days), it stands as a sequel of sorts to 2018’s acclaimed For You. Fronting the same band of pianist Jeremy Manasia, drummer McClenty Hunter and venerable bassist David Williams, Jackson delivers in the same self-assured manner that has marked his playing with icons like Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, Charlie Haden and Elvin Jones. While putting a highly personal take on such timeless and essential vehicles as “Autumn in New York,” “Limehouse Blues” and “My Shining Hour,” Jackson and his accomplished crew also deliver fresh takes on tunes by Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton, Thelonious Monk and the late Jimmy Heath, who passed away just before the official release of Deja Vu. The lone Jackson original on the program, “T.J.”, a dedication to his father.
Javon and company open Deja Vu with a relaxed reading of the achingly beautiful Vernon Duke tune from 1934, “Autumn in New York.” Said Jackson, “I became aware of it from Sonny Stitt’s Personal Appearance (Verve, 1957), which I first heard as a teenager. It’s just a great piece of music which has been covered by a lot of folks.” Indeed, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong and Kenny Burrell are among the jazz giants who have recorded “Autumn in New York” over the years.
Following that sublime opener, they tackle Cedar Walton’s “Martha’s Prize,” a lesser known gem from the pianist’s 1996 album, Composer. Bursting with energy and carrying a bouncing, post-bop swing feel, it features strong solos from both Jackson and Manasia. “Having played that tune with Cedar and David, it just brought me back to that time when we recorded this tune,” said the leader.
The playfully dissonant and quintessentially Monkish “Raise Four” is actually Javon’s first recording of a Thelonious Monk tune. “Monk is just unbelievable,” said Jackson. “He can take two or three notes and with rhythm can make such an interesting piece out of it. He’s genius. And I figured it was time to record one of his pieces. It’s a unique song and it’s got that little bit of dissonance in the melody. But at the end of the day, it’s still a blues.”
Wayne Shorter’s jaunty “Venus Di Mildew” is a composition that fellow tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley and trumpeter Lee Morgan each recorded for their respective 1965 Blue Note albums — A Caddy for Daddy and The Rumproller — though Shorter never recorded it himself. Fueled by
Hunter’s old school spang-a-lang pulse on the ride cymbal, it features outstanding solos from Jackson and Manasia before tenor sax and drums engage in some spirited trading of eights near the end of the piece, instantly connecting this crew to the tradition.
The eternal swinger, “Limehouse Blues,” a popular jamming vehicle during the Swing Era, is taken at a brisk tempo and features some blazing exchanges between Jackson and Manasia midway through. Drummer Hunter is also turned loose on the kit near the conclusion of this invigorating number. Shifting gears from that bracing jam, Manasia is featured in a piano trio version of Jackson’s more introspective jazz waltz, “T.J.” Said the composer, “I’ve recorded that a couple of times before and so this time I wanted to do a different rendition. It’s the trio, minus me. And Jeremy plays really beautiful on it.” Jackson explained that he wrote “T.J.” for his 82- year-old father, Theodore Jackson. “He and my mother made a lot of sacrifices for me to be able to become a musician. There was a club called Clyde’s Pub in Denver, where I grew up, and he took me there when I was like 13 to see Sonny Stitt. The next year he took me to see Dexter Gordon when he came to town. My father invested in me and got me really nice old Selmer saxophone when I was 14 or 15. And looking back on it now, I know he had to sacrifice for me to have that saxophone. So that’s a dedication to my dad for that kind of support he gave me early on. Those kinds of things that he did for me were really special.”
Jackson and company burn their way through the 1934 Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer swinger, “My Shining Hour,” which features fiery solos from the leader and pianist Manasia and some cool breaks for drummer Hunter. Then they strike an earthy accord on Cedar Walton’s soulful shuffle blues, “In the Kitchen.” Bassist Williams is highlighted here and he slyly quotes from Weather Report’s “Birdland” in his solo. “When we played with Cedar, that was always a feature for David,” Jackson explained. “And so, I wanted to do that here.” Manasia and Jackson also turn in stellar solos on this urgent shuffle-swing number.
Deja Vu closes on a poignant note with the late Jimmy Heath’s calming, alluring bossa nova number, “Rio Dawn.” Said Jackson, “We had known each other over the years but during the last four or five years we really talked regularly. And we formed this saxophone group with Donald Harrison and Gary Bartz that we called Sax Appeal in Jimmy’s honor, because he loved puns and wordplay and that kind of stuff. Jimmy brought in this beautiful piece and I just loved it. There’s something haunting about the melody that just lays in your mind. Sadly, I never got to play it for him but now it’s a way for me to honor him.”
Jackson explained that not only was the music for Deja Vu recorded in a seamless flow in a short span of time, it involved no rehearsals at all. “I just wrote a bunch of these things down that I’d never played before and brought them to the session,” he recalled. “And us knowing each other so well, I figured we’d be able to get into something.”
A former member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers who also put in time with such jazz giants as Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton and Ron Carter, Javon Jackson keeps the fires burning for straight ahead jazz on this, his 21st release as a leader. “I was raised in that experience of swinging, and that’s what I really have an appreciation for,” said the says the 55- year-old saxophonist-composer-educator. And as Director of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at The Hartt School, part of the University of Hartford, since 2013, Jackson is also mindful of his position and the importance of educating the next generation of players. As he told Downbeat magazine, “Today’s students won’t get to know Art Blakey. They won’t get to know Freddie Hubbard. They won’t get to know Elvin Jones or Cedar Walton or Charlie Haden or Betty Carter. But they can know them through me.”
Born on June 16, 1965 in Carthage, Missouri, Jackson was raised in Denver, Colorado and chose saxophone at the age of 10. At age 16, he switched from alto to tenor and later enrolled at the University of Denver before spending part of 1985–86 at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He left Berklee in 1986 to join Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and remained a fixture in the group until Blakey’s passing in 1990. The following year, Jackson made his recording debut with Me and Mr. Jones, featuring James Williams, Christian McBride and master drummer Elvin Jones. He joined Jones’ group in 1992, appearing on his albums Youngblood and Going Home. Jackson’s 1994 Blue Note debut, When the Time Is Right, was a straight-ahead affair produced by iconic jazz vocalist and bandleader Betty Carter. His subsequent four recordings for the Blue Note label through the ‘90s were produced by Craig Street and featured wildly eclectic programs ranging from Caetano Veloso, Frank Zappa and Santana to Muddy Waters, Al Green and Serge Gainsbourg. Jackson followed with four recordings for the Palmetto label that had him exploring a blend of funk, jazz and soul with such stellar sidemen as organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, guitarists Mark Whitfield and David Gilmore, trombonist Fred Wesley and drummer Lenny White.
In 2012, Jackson released a potent tribute to a towering influence, Celebrating John Coltrane, featuring the venerable drummer and former Coltrane collaborator Jimmy Cobb. He followed later in 2012 with Lucky 13, which featured the great soul-jazz keyboardist Les McCann and included a mellow instrumental rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” along with a version of McCann’s 1969 hit, “Compared to What.” That same year, Jackson was the recipient of the prestigious Benny Golson Award from Howard University in Washington, D.C. for recognition of excellence in jazz. Jackson’s debut on the Smoke Sessions label, 2014’s Expression, was a live quartet recording from the Smoke Jazz & Supper Club in Upper Manhattan. Jackson’s latest, 2020’s Deja Vu, is his fourth album for his own Solid Jackson Records.