Since arriving on the scene in the late 80s, as a member of the final incarnation of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson has struggled to find an identity. He’s been a neoconservative hard bopper, a breezy Brasileiro, a blustery jazz funkster, and a moderate freedom seeker a la late-60s Joe Henderson. But through it all his attractively dry, malleable tone has never faltered, and his quest has never seemed disingenuous–he follows each new path with the same wholehearted enthusiasm as the last. He took yet another tack on last year’s Pleasant Valley (Blue Note), his sixth album as a leader, by situating himself in a progressive organ combo with drummer Billy Drummond, guitarist Dave Stryker, and B-3 maestro Larry Goldings. The material ranges from bluesy, toe-tapping jams like Joe Zawinul’s “Hippodelphia” and Jackson’s own “In the Pocket” to agile, lyrical investigations of pop tunes like Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” and Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” to relatively far-out excursions like the title track and “For One Who Knows,” which recall Unity, the classic album Henderson recorded with organist Larry Young in 1965. Jackson’s an elegant player who likes his melodies sophisticated and his emotions tightly controlled, and as a result he doesn’t do justice to the album’s funkier material–he steers clear of the gutbucket grit and raunchy repetition that are so integral to the greasy organ-combo tradition. But on the hooky, melody-based numbers and postbop workouts, he soars. He appears this week leading a band with the same instrumentation as on the record, with Stryker on guitar, the great Idris Muhammad on drums, and Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ. Muhammad has never had a problem reconciling head music and body music, but unlike the flexible Goldings, Smith is a straight-up soul-jazz groover, which could create some unintended tension with Jackson’s sleeker sound. Wednesday, 8 PM, Bennett-Gordon Hall, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100. Thursday, 7:30 PM, DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl.; 773-947-0600.

Peter Margasak

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Wong.