Continuing down the path he laid with '03's Easy Does It, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson's latest, Have You Heard, is another groove-happy release that turns away from his earlier straight-ahead discs on Criss Cross and Blue Note, moving even further towards a soulful, funky vibe with greater crossover appeal. Lightweight it may be, but it's also a lot of fun and, if assessed on its own merits, successful in an easy-on-the-ears kind of way.
Back from Easy Does It are organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and guitarist Mark Whitfield, with bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Terreon Gully fleshing out the rhythm section. Gully is proving he can handle anything from the cerebral post bop of vibraphonist Stefon Harris' Grand Unification Theory to his more accessible Evolution. Singer Lisa Fischer has worked with everyone from Luther Vandross and the Rolling Stones to Patti Labelle over the past twenty years or so; she adds sultry vocals to the Jackson/Matthews blues tune "Feel Like Breakin' Up Somebody's Home," a more vivacious chorus to the disco-fied Roger Troutman hit, "Dance Floor," and some soulful wails on the equally dance-worthy "Funky in the House (reprise)."
Covering material by Curtis Mayfield (the surprisingly up-tempo "Move on Up") and Bobby Womack (the more appropriately soulful and balladic "That's the Way I Feel About Cha'"), the emphasis is on accessibility in the grooves, arrangements, and solos. Jackson's own originals flesh out a programme that also includes an upbeat version of the standard "Summertime," suggesting how it might sound had it been written by Stevie Wonder or Sly Stone, instead of Cole Porter.
Jackson, Whitfield, and Smith contribute appropriately blues-informed solos to the session, but while everyone's playing is strong throughout, nothing really stands out. Less about virtuosity and more about vibe, it's perhaps that very definition that makes the album well-crafted, but more than a little generic at the end of the day. While the playing is too defined and the approach too organic to be classified as smooth jazz, this recording veers perilously close, with most songs relying on catchy vamps and eminently danceable rhythms to maintain interest.
It's not as if other artists aren't incorporating contemporary elements into their music to make it more approachable, but Jackson seems to have done a complete reversal with his past couple of discstotally rejecting his past, as opposed to finding ways to integrate more accessible concepts with his own style and development.
Still, Have You Heard is never less than engaging, although more of the body than the mind. A little more meat and a bit more spice might make Jackson's attempts at broader acceptance more palatable to both his existing fan base and the new one he's clearly trying to cultivate.
Personnel: Javon Jackson (tenor saxophone); Lisa Fischer (vocals); Mark Whitfield (guitar); Dr. Lonnie Smith (organ); Kenny Davis (electric bass); Terreon Gully (drums)