An air of excitement over seeing Nikki Giovanni was thick in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. After all, she is a legend who has written over 30 volumes of poetry and prose, including several children’s books. For this performance, Giovanni is coming from a different perspective. She collaborated with saxophonist, composer, and educator Javon Jackson on the album “The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni.” It is a collection of Giovanni’s favorite faith music except for “Night Song,” which is a sweet song recorded by Giovanni’s friend Nina Simone.
Here’s the kicker. Giovanni sang some of the songs performed with Jackson, his trio and jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon. We know the author is not known for singing, and she admits she is not. That did not matter because we heard Giovanni’s whole heart in “Night Song.” She admitted nervousness as her voice quivered. To show us her vulnerable soul gave new meaning to spirituals many of us grew up with.
Giovanni’s banter between songs led her to talk about the importance of jazz to our culture. That was the connection working with Jackson. His bandmates, pianist Jeremy Manasia, bassist David Williams, and drummer McClenty Hunter, put a jazz slant on the selected spirituals. With the addition of Freelon, the strength of the words hit the audience just right.
Giovanni ended the performance by reciting “Ego Tripping,” one of her best-loved poems. That brought the house down!
A group of 20-something women talked after the show, and expressed joy over seeing Giovanni. For Rache’l Oatis, it was her second time seeing Giovanni.
“It was so great to see her. I felt connected, and I felt empowered,” said the Silver Spring resident. “Given the holiday season, it felt like Black holiday time.”
Taylor Thompson was seeing Giovanni for the first time. She was one of two friends with Oatis.
“It was amazing to see someone live whose work you have read,” Thompson said. “To see her so present admitting she was nervous and vulnerable, she was giving us permission as Black women to be nervous and to express ourselves.”
Breon Gaines felt Giovanni’s intent performance.
“I had a feeling of a spiritual connection,” said Gaines. “The combination of the music and her poems was such a beautiful connection.”
Giovanni and Jackson met the audience after the show to sign CDs and books. Summing up the process of creating this new piece of work, Giovanni spoke about the collaboration with Jackson in a one-on-one interview.
“It was wonderful to do this,” Giovanni said. “Javon has been in front of everything. I was happy when they said, let’s do it.”
Make Giovanni’s “The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni,” a new addition to your collection.