The Independent Ear

Jammin’ Colors

Executive Producer, Stefany Calembert

Earlier this year one of the most vibrant musical social justice projects was Black Lives – From Generation to Generation, an exceptional, cross genre 2-CD set that included artists from an array of musical pursuits and from across the globe – from such masters as saxophonist-composer Oliver Lake to one of his musical grandsons, altoist Immanuel Wilkins, as well as voices from the striking mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran to South Africa’s Tutu Puoane. The project is executive produced by Stefany Calembert, whose spouse – bassist Reggie Washington – also contributes to this project (including as his alter ego DJ Grazzhoppa). Clearly we had some questions for Stefany Calembert after Reggie hooked us up.

Where are you from and what’s your background in music?
I was born in 1978 in Brussels, Belgium into a family of music lovers. We had the radio in the kitchen where we spent the most part of our time. My childhood was filled with jazz, rap, funk, rock, classical, pop, world music and reggae. I have always loved to sing and to dance. Music brings me a lot of energy at different times in my life. Around 10 years old, I was listening to a lot of funk music from a friend of mine that had family in the USA and would bring cassettes from there (Troop, Guy, Bell Biv DeVoe, After 7, Hi-Five, Johnny Gill, Tony! Toni! Toné!). Then we had our first CD player and I started playing Tracy Chapman, Janet Jackson, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and many others.

In 1989-1990, the movies “Do the Right Thing” and “Breakin’” had a huge influence on me. There were school strikes for months because the teachers were not happy and so we were hanging out in the streets instead of going to school. At that time, many teenagers from different neighborhoods got together and had the big radio playing cassettes in the streets, make a circle and everybody was dancing. Dance was important and a way to express ourselves. Of course, the police arrived at a
moment or another to control us checking our ID with power and aggressively like we
were criminals, but we just wanted to have fun with the music.

I continued to hang out in the streets of the city for the next 5 years (I was never home) and learned a lot about other cultures, people and life. I continued to follow the music I loved which was funk, rap, jazz, reggae, world music for the most part. At 17 years old, I began traveling in Guadeloupe, Sénégal, Tunisia and listen more and more to jazz music (John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Monk, Abdullah Ibrahim, Bill

Around 19 years old, I started playing some djembe then tried Capoeira. It was nice to learn about the different history of each music. I had my apartment and was living alone so the music took a huge place in my heart. It was a long story of love, no doubt. Music was in my house from morning to evening, in my car, I was going to concerts then parties to dance and then back home with the music playing loud. For years, I was attending concerts and meeting musicians who often explained to me the difficulties of managing themselves as artists.  

In 2004, I had a big car accident and spent several weeks in the hospital. During this time, I reflected upon my passion and the role of music in my life. When I was discharged from the hospital, I was determined to start managing and organizing concerts, and a few months later I created Jammin’colors. [Editor’s note: Jammin’ Colors is the production company Stefany developed, which eventually produced the Black Lives compilation under discussion here.]

What compelled/inspired you to produce this Black Lives project?
We were in the middle of the pandemic, and it felt like the end of the world. I was thinking of bringing something positive that could help us all. I was also in pain to see all the horrible events in the United States with the police brutality.

I asked myself how can I bring people from different parts of the world together?
We need to do something and scream our pain, our love, our hope to this world.
The best way to do it was to unite peacefully through the music. Music expresses things better than human beings. Another thing that pushed me to do this project is some conversations with some
white people that were denying racism.They think it does not exist because they do not live it. It is hard for white people to understand how hard things have been for Black people.

When I started to speak more and more about how White people treated Black people horribly for centuries, they told me I was extreme. Then I said to myself this goes too far. I need to speak more about all this.

What was your planning process like and when did you begin to put this project together?
In December 2020, I took out a loan from the government. It was a catastrophic period where we had no more income, but I was ready to give everything I had to this project. It was more important than anything else. COVID was very present. We were all confined in Europe, America, Africa, Asia, Oceania, and musicians could not play live music.

The first thing was to contact all the composers I had in mind. Then see who would accept to do this project and from there start thinking of the number of songs, the sound engineer, the album cover and artwork around the project. It took from January to June 2021 to have all the songs composed and recorded. June, July and August were the mix of the 20 songs with the genius [Grammy winning recording engineer] Russell Elevado. Late August – early September we did the mastering.

From September to November 2021, I started to work on promotion, found the publicist I wanted to work with, put together the promotional material with video and pictures and then spread it to all the journalists in Europe, USA and UK. In March 2022, the double album and vinyl were released.

How did you go about selecting the artists you wanted to approach to contribute to this project?
The first thing was to choose composers that touched me musically and that were beautiful human beings. The other thing I loved with these musicians was the fact that they could all play different styles of music which is very rare and shows how excellent these musicians are. I wanted to have different generations from 20 to 80 years old from different parts of the world and to have different testimonies from different places and generations. That was very important.

The hardest part was to find women composers that would accept to compose a song. They were either too busy with their families or their own projects. All these composers were and are still engaged about social justice and equal rights.

For years Cheick Tidiane Seck, Oliver Lake, M-Base Collective, Jacques Schwarz-
Bart, Alicia Hall Moran
have been manifesting about the injustices of black people. It
is a part of their art, of their voices. These artists deserve a lot more recognition worldwide for their huge work. You could listen to them with Hank Jones, Joe Zawinul, Roy Hargrove, Meshell Ndegeocello,
Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Jef Lee Johnson, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorte and many others. Their contribution to the music is prodigious.

Why these particular artists?`
They all have a positive message and they all can play different styles of music. You
can go listen to the songs they are on, and you will understand why :-). They are hard workers, their music is smart, powerful, and bright. It speaks right at you. For me, they represent a big part in the history of the music. They influenced so many others.

Also, I have to say that they are like family for me even if there are some of the composers on the album that I never met physically. I was listening to Reggie when I was around 11 years old without knowing it was him. I was listening to Cheick Tidiane Seck at 16 years old and thinking his album with Hank Jones was some of the most beautiful music I ever heard.

The first time I went to New York City, I was blown away by the sound of Marcus Strickland. I discovered the music of [Marcus’ twin brother and drummer] E.J. Strickland as a leader and really loved it. I listened to Andy Milne, Gene Lake, David Gilmore, Oliver Lake through Reggie. Wow, what a beautiful musical world. I learned a lot.

Marcus Strickland

I was very curious and touched by the voice of Alicia Hall Moran that could go from
Opera to Motown music. I discovered Stephanie McKay with Roy Hargrove and RH Factor, she has such a powerful voice. Tutu Puoane is one of the most natural and pure voices in jazz today.
The first minute I listened to Immanuel Wilkins, I felt good. It is rare to have such a
strong personality at 25 years old.

I discovered Sonny Troupé and Grégroy Privat through Jacques Schwarz-Bart about 15 years ago and saw how they evolved with their music. It is very impressive all what they have accomplished in that time. Jeremy Pelt is one of the most creative sounds on trumpet today. I started listening to Adam Falcon at the beginning of the pandemic. He performed on a few online shows. I directly loved his work and vibe.

As far as Jean-Paul Bourelly, he has something no one has. One of his colors that touches me is the blues. I met Marvin Sewell with Jef Lee Johnson and his way of playing guitar is unique and deep. All these different colors together are beautiful.

Were you seeking a blending of musical genres with this project?
Not especially, because I like to mix different people and different styles as the label is named “Jammin’colorS”, but I was happily surprised by the 12 songs with vocals. I thought there would be more instrumentals. What I like is that the songs with vocals have magnificent solos. This music speaks from the heart all through the 20 songs.

Were the themes of each track selected by you or the participating artists?
It was totally free. Each composer chose what they wanted to do. Some preferred to be in solo, duo, trio, quartet, quintet … there is even a choir of Malian girls from 7 to 13 years old. The most important thing with the album was to stay FREE. I trusted all the composers from the beginning of the process to the end.

Do you have plans for a sequel to Black Lives? 
Yes, we have a tour in November 2022 and will record some of the live concerts. We will also go in studio to record some new songs. Very exciting.

The first album was during the pandemic time where the conditions to record were very hard. The second album will be with the musicians recording all together. Nothing better than spending days together to create.

I want to continue this project on a long-term period because unfortunately … we all know that racism is not ready to leave. Just look at the world and you see all these extremists and fascists. We need to unite but peacefully and we need to continue to express what is in our hearts. Being honest, real and open a dialogue with the world about this taboo subject.

I would love to bring more composers and musicians into this collective.
Things will go naturally. This is what’s important. Let people express themselves.
Stay thankful and faithful to humanity. Nature made us like we are and there is no
reason to destroy each other. Let’s unite and share something positive for the next generations that will have to face this future world.

Here are the European tour dates for this project:

EUROPEAN TOUR with Black Lives – from Generation to Generation 

10 NOV – Le Botanique – BRUSSELS

12 NOV –  Opderschmelz – DUDELANGE

17 NOV – New Morning (Officiel) – PARIS

18 NOV – Jazzdor – STRASBOURG

19 NOV – The South London Soul Train – LONDON
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65th Monterey Jazz Festival Marks Grand Return

Following the pandemic of 2020, when most if not all jazz festivals were forced into a brave new “virtual” world (if not outright cancellation), in 2021 many such events returned as either shadows of their traditional design, in abbreviated fashion, or in different configurations as we crept back to normalcy. Such was the case with the 2021 edition of the Monterey Jazz Festival. Whereas the traditional Monterey County Fairgrounds setting offered not only the big venue Arena – home to the Jimmy Lyons Stage – but also the outdoor Garden Stage, Courtyard Stage, and adjacent Coffee House Gallery, and the indoor venues known as Dizzy’s Den and the Nightclub, as well as an indoor venue used to screen simulcasts of Arena performances.

Alexis Tarrantino, Ingrid Jensen, and Nicole Glover formed a potent frontline for the superb all-women ensemble known as Artemis

Following strict pandemic precautions, the 2021 edition of MJF was a cautionary modest return with performances limited to strictly outdoors, which restricted the festival to its two main stages: the Arena and the Garden Stage, plus the Courtyard Stage, a patio amongst food service merchants just steps from the festival’s main entry gate that generally features emerging artists offerings. For the 2022 MJF that scenario was expanded to include a new outdoor stage adjacent to the old Dizzy’s Den building, known as the West End Stage, which opened up the Fairgrounds to more of its traditional configuration, though lingering local pandemic precautions continued to mean no indoor performances and limitations on the number of food and craft vendors, which meant frequent traffic jams at fan favorites among the tasty offerings. But what is always most consistent about any Monterey Jazz Festival experience – performances ranging from notable to memorable – happily persisted in spades this year.

One of the most notable of several MJF debut performances was delivered by the remarkable 24-year old vocalist Samara Joy. Mature of voice well beyond her years, Ms. Joy was on the cusp of her recently released Verve debut Linger Awhile. Her comfort level with selections from the Great American Songbook, her smooth phrasing, and simpatico with her band – particularly the fine guitarist Pasquale Grasso – was delivered with such elan that folks were overheard marveling at her artistry all weekend.

Samara Joy thrilled an SRO audience of folks largely new to her artistry

Other notable MJF debut performances were turned in by the Richmond, VA-based unit known as Butcher Brown, which brings a modern groove oriented crossover perspective as much informed by various fusion era incarnations as by classic hip hop. Butcher Brown drummer Corey Fonville and bassist DJ Harrison also contributed indelibly to Kurt Elling’s highly charged new project Superblue. The catalyst for this modernist update on the vocalist’s approach is decidedly the resourceful guitarist Charlie Hunter, who recruited the young cats who propel this project, including the Huntertone Horns (which notably included ace trumpeter Kenyatta Beasley) who give the project an essential brass uplift.

Guitar master Dave Stryker, who talked wistfully about his 2020 MJF debut having been obliterated by the pandemic, delivered quite soulfully to a deeply appreciative audience who seemed to share in his sense of something missed-then-recaptured. Stryker was joined by a wonderfully communicative unit that included Howard University’s own McClenty Hunter on drums, Hammond B-3 ace Jared Gold, and Warren Wolf on vibes.

Speaking of the vibes, Joel Ross and the enormously gifted saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins joined pianist-keyboardist Gerald Clayton for a set introducing the pianist’s bristlingly creative new vibes trio. Clayton, the artistic director of MJF’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, a national high school all-star band, put the young musicians through their paces for the Sunday afternoon opening set, counting off the set in high blues form with Thad Jones‘ infectious arrangement of the soulful Jerome Richardson tune “Groove Merchant.”

Dee Dee Bridgewater & Kurt Elling bring voice to the 2022 touring edition of Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour

Other emerging artists who contributed notably to MJF ’22 included the pianist-composer Kris Bowers, himself a former Next Gen JO participant. Bowers was commissioned to write what resulted in the majestic, through-composed orchestral work “Asylo” in celebration of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Accompanying the sumptuous performance were big screen video of life among the majestic whales, including the lapping waves and calming seascapes. On the Garden Stage the youthful energy source known as Matthew Whitaker delivered his keyboard-fueled feel-good ouevre to great effect, making plenty of new enthusiasts along the way. Harpist Brandee Younger broadened Ravi Coltrane‘s Cosmic Music spiritual love letter to his parents Alice & John.

Photos: Courtesy of Bridget Arnwine

One of the true presences at this year’s festival was provided by the deep soul voice of Lisa Fischer, guesting marvelously with the blue rootsy band Ranky Tanky. This year marked a new iteration of the every 3 year touring assemblage known as MJF on Tour. In celebration of the festival’s 65th anniversary, artistic director Tim Jackson brought together Kurt Elling, Dee Dee Bridgewater (and you know that pairing will be fun on tour!), alto sax powerhouse Lakecia Benjamin, and a rhythm section of pianist Christian Sands, with bassist Yasushi Nakamura and the versatile Clarence Penn on drums. Sands’ MJF residency also engaged his “Sands Box” series of artist conversations, including a fun and stimulating Sunday lunchtime dialogue with Kurt Elling.

Nicholas Payton‘s set on the Garden Stage was one whose electronic intimacy might have been better – and more attentively – served in an interior venue. His trio – with two resourceful electronics manipulators who provided grooves and inspirations for Payton’s (too) occasional trumpet, acoustic bass, and keyboards. One of Payton’s mates was Sasha Masakowski, who too late in the set for my ears, finally unfurled her considerable vocal chops in service to Payton’s atmospheric explorations. But unfortunately the outdoor setting made for shifting audience dynamics.

One of the clear highlight small band sets was turned in by the masterful reunion quartet of Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Brian Blade and the reliably buoyant Christian McBride. The levels of communication between these four was a constantly evolving revelation as they traveled the varied vistas of their compositions. Quite notable was their essay on Mehldau – who was on quiet fire all evening – composition “Mohawk”. Wouldn’t ‘ya know it, buzzard’s luck: this essential set was scheduled opposite The Cookers over on the Garden Stage! [Thankfully The Cookers do play the beautiful Keystone Korner Baltimore; in the DMV ya’ll; Joshua-Christian-Brad & Brian? Not so much…; thus the choice was clear.]. There were a good dozen more such conundrums throughout MJF weekend, and noting them here might prove painful, but such is life at the oldest continuing jazz festival on the planet.

The remarkable all-woman ensemble Artemis has added newcomers Nicole Glover on tenor sax and Alexa Tarantino to the core ensemble of pianist Renee Rosnes, drummer Allison Miller, bassist Noriko Ueda, and the always-rewarding trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. Their set provided further evidence of the welcome broadening gender perspective of our current jazz moment where high class women musicians and bandleaders are arriving on the scene in accelerated fashion.

One of the great moments of this year’s festival was provided by the veteran artistry of pianist-composer Chucho Valdes‘ broad canvas work “La Creacion”, a large ensemble work beautifully co-conducted by pianist-keyboardists John Beasley, whose ensemble Monk’estra horn section powered the work, and Chucho’s Cuban compadre Hilario Duran. With at times 3 ritual bata drum & voice contributors in the ensemble, this densely layered work will be on tour this Fall. The work included a beautiful calypso section keyed to one of the trumpeters in the ensemble, Trinidadian Etienne Charles, and an incendiary drum excursion from Dafnis Prieto. With Chucho’s bravura piano at the helm, this was the most inspired performance of this MJF edition.

Chucho Valdes piloting perhaps the signature set of the 65th annual Monterey Jazz Fesstival

Per usual, there were so many moments of musical conflict with great acts all across the Fairgrounds making it impossible to capture it all, that one should always approach a Monterey Jazz Festival experience with the thought that you just can’t catch all the great moments, so best to settle on your essentials knowing that you’re always going to catch more than a few surprises and be introduced to more than a few new artists to further enrich your pallet.

Photos: Bridget Arnwne

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Ethan Iverson jazz renaissance man

I was one who admittedly questioned the late 90s/early 21st century seeming media blizzard on behalf of The Bad Plus, the innovative trio for which Ethan Iverson served so splendidly as its original pianist. Subsequent personal sightings of TBP proved that yes, these guys were onto something interesting, all media acclaim aside. Since then I’ve found Iverson to be an eminently reasonable man unencumbered by what might accompany the level of runaway ego or undue hubris that sometimes seems to attach itself to musicians less evolved amidst that initial level of TBP hype. Notably his efforts have included some very productive writing on jazz and related subjects, for JazzTimes magazine and for his own Transitional Technology blog, which you can find at

For the late 2018/early 2019 holiday season Suzan and I spent a lovely time at Umbria Jazz’s great winter event in scenic Orvieto, traditionally held the week after Christmas climaxing New Year’s Day. And what a rewarding experience it was, including an opportunity to observe Ethan Iverson at work on a fairly large scale project.

Umbria Jazz had commissioned Iverson to sort of reimagine the genius pathbreaking pianist Bud Powell and his music. For the occasion Ethan was joined onstage by guest trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, the superb house rhythm section of bassist Ben Street and the eminently crafty master drummer Lewis Nash. The core band for Ethan’s Bud Powell re-imaginings was the Umbria Jazz Orchestra. For this project Iverson contributed eight original compositions in the spirit of Bud, and arranged seven Powell originals – including his classics “Tempus Fugit,” “Celia,” “Un Poco Loco,” and “Bouncing with Bud,” the inevitable Monk encounter “52nd Street Theme.”

The results of that commissioned work are borne out in one of this writer’s picks in Francis Davis’ annual critic’s poll for 2021’s finest releases, Bud Powell In The 21st Century released on the Sunnyside label. Having an opportunity to hear this project evolve over the course of a week is one of the beauties of a great festival like Umbria Jazz Winter, in the inviting confines of Teatro Mancinelli.

A few weeks ago Ethan Iverson struck again, this revelation was his debut recording for the classic Blue Note label, Every Note is True, this time in trio mode with the auspicious rhythm section of bassist Larry Grenadier and NEA Jazz Master drummer Jack DeJohnette. Clearly some questions were in order for the intrepid Ethan Iverson.

I know you’re somewhat of a historian of this music, so given the hallowed place Blue Note Records holds in the history of recorded jazz, what’s your sense of making your Blue Note debut?

Blue Note is at the top, of course. It’s very odd for me to consider all this – because I can’t believe how lucky I am – but The Bad Plus debuted on Columbia when that label was still a real force for jazz, thanks to Yves Beauvais’s sting at A&R. I love Manfred Eicher and ECM, and the projects I’ve done there were wonderful experiences, perhaps especially the duo session with Mark Turner, where Manfred gave some remarkable feedback in the studio. Most recently I gave my Bud Powell in the 21st Century tape to Francois Zalacain, who holds it down at Sunnyside. God bless Sunnyside too.

The Blue Note catalog is unrivaled. The whole human race loves the classic Blue Note records! But I also really admire Don Was’ conviction that the music doesn’t stop growing. He’s managed to curate a label that does not rest on its laurels, but stays relevant.

You gotta believe in the music more than the career. If you sit around worrying about the career all day, you won’t make the music you need to make. However, leaving The Bad Plus was objectively a career risk. Putting out a record on Blue Note is proof that leaving TBP was the right decision.

The title of this recording – Every Note is True – is one that some might assume carries a message. If so, what would that message be?

It’s a line from the opening song, but also yes, a message, or even a manifesto. One must believe in one’s own musical opinion, there’s simply no other way to do it.

What went into your selecting such a stellar rhythm section of Jack DeJohnette on drums and Larry Grenadier on bass to make this record?

The 2020 pandemic closed many doors, but it opened up a few as well. I had always wanted to play with Jack DeJohnette. Since nobody had any gigs, Jack was free to meet me and Larry Grenadier in the studio for two days.

I had worked with Larry a bit, he’s on my record with Lee Konitz. For many he is the ranking bassist of his generation. The first time I saw Larry play he was extremely young and sounding just great with Joe Henderson at Fat Tuesdays, maybe 1993 or so. Larry is a serious virtuoso, but he believes in the traditional function of the bass.

I first saw Jack DeJohnette live at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis with Keith Jarrett. I believe I was only twelve years old. The experience was so profound I bought a set of drums the very next day. He’s one of the greatest drummers of all time, full stop.

Obviously you have a whole universe of tunes to select from, not to mention your own original compositions. So how did you choose these particular ten tunes for this record?

After leaving The Bad Plus I had a lot more space around my head, and surprised myself by writing a lot more music. Hardly a week has gone by where I don’t think of a melody and write it down. The tunes on Every Note is True are some of the better ones. I selected relatively easy themes that we could learn quickly and record passionately.

Then there’s the opening track, “The More it Changes,” a novelty number with friends, most of whom I didn’t see in person all year but who sent me text messages with their vocal overdub. In the end, one must try to adapt to any circumstance.

As a piano player, who have been your guiding lights?

I know all the jazz pianists, but I love other stuff too. When I interface with literature, movies, or television, it helps me see that parameters of genre are freeing, not constricting. I like genres. Some people don’t believe in them and want to live their life “genre-free.” I have little interest in that perspective. I’m more like, “What is the genre?” If we know what genre it is, then we can fill the container with the right kind of material.

Everything “new” is a combination of previous things. What matters is how well you know each element you’re combining. If you’re writing a supernatural detective story, you need to ask yourself how well you know the supernatural genre and how well you know the detective genre. People often know one side more than the other. That’s always been an issue in the arts, but here in the postmodern age of the 21st Century, everything’s a click away. It’s all one big mashup. The question is how well you can control all the aspects you’re dialing in to the final product.

Sometimes a college music student will say, “I don’t want to be labeled. Don’t even call it jazz; it’s all beyond category.” I get it, but at the same time, any single phrase you can play on an instrument has a heritage, so what lineage are you in? And if you know your lineage, you can accept it or work against it.

To get back to your question, three of my many obvious jazz piano influences are Thelonious Monk, Paul Bley, and Mal Waldron.

However, part of what makes me distinctive as a player are frankly European Classical elements. Indeed, I believe no other “jazz” pianist has done exactly what I accomplished in The Bad Plus’ The Rite of Spring, which was merely reading down a score filled with thousands of notes alongside a fierce rhythm section.

In pure musical terms, I play a lot of triads. Most of my peers rarely play pure triads. At the session Jack DeJohnette said to me, “You play a lot of triads. That’s really different.” I responded “Jack, one of the first places where I was so impressed with a pure triad was the ending of your piece “Blue” (Jack recorded that on piano on a Gateway album.). Jack then taught me “Blue” in the studio and it ended up on Every Note is True!

As a musician whose own interviews of fellow artists and whose writing exploits appear to be expanding, how do you balance your roles as musician and as writer?

I feel close to certain heroes who also did historical work. Johannes Brahms collected old scores and oversaw editions of then hard-to-find scores of Francois Couperin and others. Mary Lou Williams assessed the whole canon eloquently, and her “Tree of Jazz” is one of the finest pedagogical tools ever produced. Donald Westlake wrote some truly significant pieces of literary criticism in addition to publishing almost 100 crime novels.

The journals of pre-internet artists often make for great reading. In the internet age, the minute you think of something, you can put it online, for better or for worse. But my public advocacy for music writ large is also my journal. It certainly interacts with my performances and recordings in a very literal way.

So what’s next on Ethan Iverson’s agenda?

Every Note is true was released February 11th, and there were two record release concerts, Feb. 7 in Boston and Feb. 11 in Brooklyn. Jack recommended Nasheet Waits as a sub for the live gigs, which was perfect.

In addition to the trio repertory with Larry and Nasheet, the two concerts featured the 45-minute suite “Ritornello, Sinfonias, and Cadenzas” for eight horns and rhythm section. This was the American premier of a 45-minute suite commissioned last year for the Umbria Jazz Festival. It’s really pretty damn good IMO, I turned 49 on Feb. 11, and – while this is not visible on the surface yet – the rough plan is to spend the next stage of my career in my 50s and in the far future less as a trio pianist and more as a formal composer. Eventually, in retrospect, those concerts may mark the transition.

This coming year I will be playing with the Billy Hart Quartet quite a bit, in a longstanding group with Mark Turner and Ben Street. There’s also work as a composer or arranger with the Mark Morris Dance Group or Dance Heginbotham. Truly I am lucky to have so many wonderful collaborators. From the outside, it might look hopelessly eclectic, but for me it all follows the same thread. Every note is true!

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DC Jazz Festival Permanently Moves its Annual DC JazzFest to Labor Day Weekend

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Javon Jackson’s rootsy exploration

Tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, was the final tenor saxophonist in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, his tenure running from 1987 until Blakey’s 1990 ascendence. In addition to Blakey, Javon, who grew up largely in the Denver, CO area, prepped with such NEA Jazz Masters as Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Haden, Betty Carter, Cedar Walton, Ron Carter, and Dr. Lonnie Smith. Currently director of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford’s Hart School of Music, The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni (Solid Jackson Records) is Javon’s 21st. This new release marks a precipitous exploration of one of the root sources of the American music tradition – gospel songs and spirituals, for which he partnered with the great poet Nikki Giovanni.

Would it be fair to refer to this as your “gospel” project?
It’s our project.  I reached out to Nikki and asked her to select 10 spirituals and that would be the material used on my next cd. From there I listened to many renditions of these spirituals from artists that include Jessye Norman, the Moses Hogan Singers, Etta James, and Sweet Honey in The Rock. Great and inspiring music!

What was the genesis of this project?

Nikki’s love for spirituals and our one on one conversations on their history made the way for an “epiphany”, my thought to have her provide the selections that I ultimately recorded.

How did you come to connect Nikki Giovanni to this project?

In my capacity as Professor; Director of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford, I invited Nikki to the university for a Q&A and discussion with the student body during Black History Month in 2020 regarding her life as poet and scholar.  Also, I suggested to President Gregory Woodward of the University of Hartford that Nikki receive an honorary degree during the visit, which President Woodard arranged and there was a wonderful ceremony.

Given Covid-era restrictions, how did this project come together?

The project was delayed for a year because of Covid, but we eventually found the time in July 2021.

What are the songs on this project and how did you come to select this repertoire?

All of the selections picked by Nikki were very adaptable for a myself and my band, we are a jazz quartet.  I especially enjoyed recording “Wade in the Water”, “Mary Had a Baby, Yes Lord”, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, “Night Song”  and “I Opened My Mouth the Lord”.

photo by Shaban R . Athuman

Since you come from a jazz perspective and Nikki Giovanni comes from a poetry perspective – two disciplines which have historic connections – what was your sense of the interactions with Nikki Giovanni to realize this project?

She is an artist who loves jazz music and is a Christian.  I come from a family of devout Christians, so that is a part of my ancestral stream.  There wasn’t any conversation between Nikki and myself about how the material would be recorded once I received her choices.  As Nikki sang on “Night Song”, there was actually no conversation on that one either.  She came into the studio, did a practice take for the engineer and then nailed her involvement on the first recorded take!

What was your process for arriving at the music for this project?

I’m very happy to have collaborated to Nikki and greatly appreciate our growing friendship. Nikki selected the music and I don’t know what prompted her to pick these particular pieces. I do know that the spiritual we recorded, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, is one that reminds Nikki of grandmothers and how Nikki always knew that her grandmother was there for her to lean on.

How do you foresee realizing this project onstage?

We have upcoming concerts with Nikki as our special guest and looking forward!!  She will participate as vocalist performing “Night Song”.  She will also be onstage offering poetry for her vast library of original writings that will occur in tandem with the music.  On the CD, “Wade in the Water” is accompanied with Nikki’s poem “A Very Simple Wish”.  It was interpreted beautifully by Dr. Christina Greer, Associate Professor of Political Science at Fordham University.

Given your work at Harrt School of Music and this project, I’m reminded of something Branford Marsalis said about his jazz education work at North Carolina Central University.  He always felt that those incoming students who had experience playing in the church had an advantage – particularly from a rhythm perspective – over those students who did not have that experience.  Have you found that to be the case with your students at Hart?

I agree. I have found that rhythm can be a benefit for those who had experience playing in church. It’s an organic environment where rhythm and emotion are the priorities.

What’s your overall sense of now leading a program which was essentially founded by Jackie McLean, and what do you feel is his ongoing influence on your efforts and on the program in general?

Having known Jackie McLean and what he stood for, it is an honor to be Chair of the program that he created with love, perseverance and sacrifice. He was a musical giant and will live forever!! I’m just trying to do my little part and be a resource and a support system for the young people that I encounter in the program. To teach is to learn and I must stay in a learning mode as well!!

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