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“Many times in jazz the personnel that comes together in a special way is the result of second choices or just plain serendipity. So too with the pairing of Javon Jackson and Les McCann who have been performing together at clubs and festivals, including a recent concert at the Cape May Jazz Festival. Seeing the two mesh onstage, it would be hard to imagine that the legendary McCann was originally a sub or fill-in.”

Saxman Jackson channels happy notes

Newark Star Ledger
Friday, July 25, 2003
By Zan Stewart
Star-Ledger Staff

“I’m just trying to find a center that feels good,” says tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson. “All the guys that I love, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Gene Ammons, they feel good, and the music on this record speaks to that.”

The West Orange-based Jackson is talking about his just-out CD, Easy Does It (Palmetto), which takes him into a new area. It’s a mix of funk, R&B and jazz tunes that is more about feeling than anything else. Some of the tunes, like the ballad “Diane,” come at you in a subtle way. Others, like “House Party,” can get you up and dancing.

“I wanted to make something that felt good, that presented a happy atmosphere,” says Jackson.

Jackson appears Thursday through Aug. 2 at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan with his Split Second band, featuring the Hammond B-3 organ. On the record, Dr. Lonnie Smith is the organist; at the Jazz Standard, Sam Yahel will fill that chair. Two other long-time colleagues of Jackson’s — drummer Lenny White and Jersey City-based guitarist Mark Whitfield — recorded the CD and will be performing.

“I enjoyed making this record, playing in this emotionally direct way,” says Jackson, 37, a native of Carthage, Mo., who grew up in Denver and has been living in New Jersey since 1998. “And Lenny, Sam and Mark play more from what they hear than what they know, and that gives us more options. As a group, we’re taking chances, seeing what comes out. That’s a great experience for me.”

Jackson came into prominence through his 1987-90 tenure with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Later came appearances with another drum master, Elvin Jones, the trumpet great Freddie Hubbard and bass ace Ron Carter. He’s made several albums as a leader. His A-1 “Pleasant Valley” (Blue Note, 1999), employed his occasional sideman, West Orange guitarist Dave Stryker, as well as organist Larry Goldings.

“Organ allows me to go a lot of different directions,” says Jackson. “I can play soul, jazz, ballads, rock, a funk groove. And I like the way my tenor matches the organ.”

Jackson knew by age 12 that he wanted to be a professional musician. His father took him to see Duke Ellington, played him records by Sonny Stitt. Studying saxophonists like Stitt, Ammons, Coltrane, Joe Henderson and Rollins rooted Jackson in music’s fundamentals. “That gives you the confidence to take more chances,” he says.

Playing with Blakey, after three years at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, was primary to everything he’s accomplished, Jackson says.

“It gave me confidence, professionalism, leadership abilities, seriousness,” he says. “Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It was through Art that I met most of the guys I worked with — Elvin, Freddie. I grew up in his band. He turned me into a man.”

Asked what he likes about playing, Jackson says, “It’s the unknown.” He laughs. “You have to (offer) your emotions and thought process. It’s a real challenge to get (at) what’s inside you so that people can feel it. Music gives you the greatest feeling — you do what you love to do, something you’d do for free.”