With the highly anticipated release of her Peak Records debut Tequila Moon—and its first single, the title track which is a Top 5 hit on Radio & Records’ Smooth Jazz Airplay chart--saxophonist Jessy J is breaking fresh ground both musically and demographically in the smooth jazz genre. She joined Mindi Abair, Candy Dulfer, Pamela Williams and Joyce Cooling as another exciting female performer on the charts dominated by male artists over 40. The majority of smooth jazz listeners, festival goers and CD buyers are well over 30, but at 26, Jessy—adapted from her given name Jessica Spinella—is reaching out to younger listeners and making contemporary jazz as cool for them as it is for their parents.
As the first artist of Mexican-American heritage to join the ranks, she’s also expanding the cultural boundaries of the genre. The Portland born, Hemet, California raised performer’s sizzling mix of hot beats, Latin, samba rhythms and sensuous melodies is a natural outgrowth of growing up in a family where her Mexican born father and Texas native mother had parties at their house featuring live Latin music, including the La Banda style of her dad’s home country.
As a sideperson, she has built in cred with the Latin music audience. While she has toured this last year with Michael Bolton and has a few scheduled dates with the pop singer this spring, Jessy has also worked extensively in Mexico with two of the country’s most popular artists, Gloria Trevi (known as “The Madonna of Mexico”) and Armando Manzanero (whom Jessy calls “the Mancini of Mexico”). The Spanish-speaking saxophonist is also heavily involved in music programs connected with the Hispanic community, performing over the years with the Hispanic Musician Association Orchestra. In 2006, Jessy had the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall as part of the Latin Jazz Project put together by one of her sax heroes, Paquito D’Rivera.
Her equal love for pop music and legendary saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley are also clear influences running throughout the eleven tracks of Tequila Moon. Long before the album was officially released, Jessy was building a great support system with her fellow genre artists and fans alike. While working on her debut album with Paul Brown, a popular guitarist and the genre’s most successful producer—his 50-plus #1 Radio & Records smooth jazz hits include tracks by Boney James, Peter White, Euge Groove and Norman Brown—she also toured as Brown’s sax player throughout 2006 and 2007. She performed at one of the genre’s most important events, the Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival, in October 2006 and as part of its 20th anniversary in 2007, she became one of the only artists to ever headline shows on all three weekends. Jessy was also a featured performer this past January on The Smooth Jazz Cruise 2008.
Tequila Moon opens with Jessy in full-on seduction mode, inviting the listener to enjoy a balmy, slightly breezy evening complete with her low toned tenor melody, laid back percussion, Brown’s gently jangling guitar and Karukas’ retro keyboard sounds. She keeps the smoky and soulful tenor vibe going over the cool grooves of the midtempo ballad “Spanish Nights,” which features Brown’s hypnotic guitar harmonies and Richie Gajate Garcia’s enchanting Latin soundscapes. Next, Jessy takes us down to Rio, playing moodily over an old school samba groove amidst a dreamy, romantic atmosphere on “Sin Ti/Without You”; after Peterson’s high impact Fender Rhodes solo, the rhythms pick up and Jessy digs in for some of the collection’s most explosive improvisational blowing.
She puts down her sax and graces us with her powerful, sensual vocals on the familiar strains of Jorge Bem’s “Mas Que Nada,” best known in the U.S. as the signature song of Sergio Mendes. Jessy intertwines flute and tenor with scorching rhythms and sweeping ambiences on the feisty and percussive jam tune that lives up to its name “Fiesta Velada” before chilling out and picking up the soprano sax for the first time on a heartfelt, lyrical reading of Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man.” The melodically compelling, easy strutting Kiki Ebsen-penned song “Turquoise Street” allows Jessy to express her more in the pocket, contemporary soul and jazz chops, while the soaring ballad “PB n’ J” (cleverly referring to its composers, Brown and Jessy) offers a passionate, romantic dance between her sax, Brown’s guitar and Ebsen’s hypnotic piano touches.
Focusing strictly on vocals, Jessy reaches back through the years for a gorgeous, lilting take on “Besame Mucho,” and picks up her soprano again for the wistful and easy grooving (courtesy of drummer Chad Wright’s tasteful brushes and percussionist Nino Sanchez’ laid back exotica) “Running Away.” Tequila Moon closes with an emotional rendition of Leon Russell’s beloved ballad “Song For You,” which opens in a blues/soul vein before building dramatically and adding touches of sparse acoustic jazz and one of Jessy’s most memorable improvisational solos.
Already very accomplished as a player and performer, Jessy makes a great case for future contemporary jazz stardom with this exciting debut. Listeners everywhere are finding a nice cool spot under the Tequila Moon and soaking in all of its joys and charms.