[5 December 2005]
The latest from Javon Jackson is an old-school jazz-funk romp—something that Lou Donaldson might have recorded for Blue Note 40 years ago, something that would have fit on a chitlin-circuit jukebox. Featuring Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ and Mark Whitfield on guitar, Have You Heard is a good time record—a firm backbeat and a soulful vocal never being far from its center.
But for all that good intention, its center is pretty soft.
Everybody here can really blow—don’t get me wrong. The Good Doctor Smith sets the table with funky aplomb, and Mr. Jackson and Mr. Whitfield spin blues all over the place like it was cotton candy. But, in the end, this is a record gooey at the core—not down and dirty like a Maceo Parker record and not a clever update on the organ sound like recent releases from Jon Scofield and James Carter. Rather, Have You Heard alternates between slinky jazz that sounds suspiciously Turrentinian (“Have You Heard”, “That’s the Way I Feel About ‘Cha”) and straight up funk (“Dance Floor”, “Move On Up”, “Funky in Here (Reprise)”). The softer, more melodic stuff feels lightweight, and the funk feels like an over-faithful copy of the original material, slightly faint around the edges.
Though this disc follows in the footsteps of Mr. Jackson’s first record for Palmetto, it remains an unusual duck. Palmetto is known for fairly uncompromising projects featuring vanguard New York composers and downtown denizens. And while Mr. Jackson can make any gig that crowd throws down, he’s cast here as a Grover Washington, Jr. figure—the next generation’s Hank Crawford. It’s an odd role for an alumnus of the Jazz Messengers and of great bands led by Freddie Hubbard and Elvin Jones.
The oddest parts of this music are the Mark Whitfield guitar solos using a form of processing that makes him sound like he’s playing one of those early synthesizers that quacks like a duck. Whitfield is a wizard at this kind of music, but the quacking solos are robbed of their guitaristic snap and twang and sound merely cute. The “Summertime” arrangement here is by Mr. Whitfield, and it suggests that the old chestnut is, at last, fully played out. Trying to find a fresh approach, Whitfield and Jackson have merely buried it in a crummy riff and a wah-wah groove. Ill-advised.
The best moments belong to Dr. Smith and the leader. Lonnie Smith is an old hand at this kind of thing, and he knows when to layer the tracks with soothing sustain and when to stab at his keyboard for percussive effect. While the Whitfield solo on the opener, “In This Corner”, sounds vaguely Casio-keyboard-ish, Dr. Smith makes the band sound like Jimmy Smith Meets The Funky Meters, with a slow-growing organ solo that is as much Monk as it is grease. “Dr. Smith” is a minor blues for tenor, guitar and organ alone, with the good doctor working the pedals for swing and making you wish the whole disc were this hip and wide-open.
Mr. Jackson lets sparks fly on “Move on Up”. Toward the end of his solo, the bass drops out and Javon goes beat for beat with drummer Tyrone Gully, his harmonically suspended flurries sparring with Gully’s syncopated toms. He gets a full-throated cry from his tenor on “Quik” (dedicated to the Nestle drink?) and a lovely ballad sound on “That’s the Way I Feel”. There are few places on this recording, however, where Mr. Jackson pulls out all the stops to blow us away. It is commendable restraint, though it also helps the record to lapse into a too-easy pleasantry, given the chops sitting just below the surface.
Some will wonder why more of the record doesn’t feature Lisa Fischer’s vocals. On Roger Troutman’s tune “Dance Floor”, she overdubs a soul vocal and a set of wordless harmonies that are fairly forgettable—the “shake-shake-shake” part particularly seeming like a misplaced gesture. On “Feel Like Breakin’ Up Somebody’s Home” she is better utilized, putting across a deep soul-blue sound that works on its own terms. And while Lonnie and Mark sit behind her like old pros, the rhythm feel of the song is a just a little bit disco. Ms. Fischer, who has sung with the Stones and Luther Vandross, reappears for a reprise at the album’s end, providing wordless soul whoops and cries, hiccups and wooooos.
This last track, “Funky in Here”, tries to capture a party spirit that the whole album is plainly after. It’s meant to be party music, a feelin’-fine groove record that reminds you of a great late-night basement dance or a sunset-bathed barbecue in the city. For me, though, it’s a jazz musician’s facsimile of such a sound—not unskillful and not poorly played but merely a facsimile, a gesture toward music we all enjoy without actually being that music.