Jessy J: Balancing Serious Skills and Sexy Image
“ Every now and then there's someone who doesn't know what I do and they see me holding my case and think I'm a groupie or something. I get a kick out of telling them, "No, I'm in the band. " ”
Born Jessica Spinella in Portland, Oregon, the multi-instrumentalist has carved out a sturdy reputation as a musician in the studio and onstage in bands supporting Michael Bolton, Jessica Simpson and Gloria Trevi. In 2007, she released a eponymous debut album that didn't make much of a splash. Her sophomore effort, Tequila Moon (Peak Records, 2008) has been a fixture on airplay of smooth jazz stations and recently tied Kenny G. for most consecutive weeks in the Top Five.
It's not an accident that Jessy J's good looks are prominently featured on the CD cover and booklet. Yeah, she's hot. But can she play? The runaway success of Tequila Moon says, "Yes, she can." Jazz fans aren't going to fall for slick packaging and a sexy image if you don't have some skills. Jessy J has the skills. She's not "just some chick with a saxophone."
All About Jazz: Your new album, Tequila Moon is burning up the airwaves of smooth jazz radio. What's life like for you now?
Jessy J: Life is completely different from what it was six months ago. I'm really busy now traveling the world, promoting the CD and doing a lot of other events and concerts. In my free time I find myself promoting it on my website and MySpace page.
I'm constantly focused on Tequila Moon; I'm super busy, but I feel really blessed.
AAJ: You play tenor sax principally and some alto. How do you decide what saxophone gives you the kind of sound you're looking for.
JJ: Alto was my first saxophone then I went on to soprano and then tenor and baritone. I worked very closely with (producer) Paul Brown on this project and he's been my mentor through the whole thing. He prefers the tenor saxophone over the alto because of the sonic waves of the instrument. He was thinking the tenor sax would be more pleasing to the ear and would be better suited to the Latin project we were on. I think he was pretty accurate in that.
We also chose the soprano sax for some songs because it has a lighter touch and it's a bit more like a girl's voice, so for those two really romantic, wispy songs, "Running Away" and "Poetry Man" we wanted to use a lighter sound.
AAJ: Jazz is still primarily seen as a boy's clubhouse with no girls allowed. Sexism exists in this genre same as everywhere else. Have you ever run into any "you play pretty good for a girl" attitudes or anyone trying to patronize you?
JJ: Yeah, that happens quite often and more so when I was a semi-professional coming up through the ranks playing with the big boys who would always look at me like I'm crazy with my saxophones. Soon as they heard me play they saw I was the real deal.
It's what I've been doing my whole life, playing music. People see the passion I have for it and they think twice about their discrimination. Now that I'm a pro and I have my CD and a track record, everyone comes to respect that I play the saxophone. Every now and then there's someone who doesn't know what I do and they see me holding my case and think I'm a groupie or something. I get a kick out of telling them, "No, I'm in the band. I'm playing."
AAJ: I understand you're part of Michael Bolton's touring band?
JJ: I just got off the road with Michael Bolton. We finished up on a five-week tour of the South and our last show was in Georgia. I really enjoy playing with him and his high level of musicianship. He's a fantastic singer, plays the guitar and he's such a hard worker. The level of the musicians in the band is incredible. Nelson Braxton of The Braxton Brothers is in the band and so is Chris Camozzi, who had a number one smooth jazz hit in 2000. I'm learning a lot from being with themhow to be on the road, and it's a great opportunity for me to do interviews with people around the country.
AAJ: Who found who? How do you hook up with someone like Michael Bolton?
JJ: Well, it's through recommendations. Most of my pop gigs have been that way. I first played with Jessica Simpson in 2004 and her drummer was also Michael Bolton's drummer. They were looking for a saxophonist/singer, so he told Michael, "Hey, you need to check out my friend, Jessy." I did a few shows with him and it worked out. I've been in this band for two years now.
AAJ: Is it difficult to switch up from playing pop and R&B music to jazz?
JJ: I love Michael Bolton's music. One of the things that can help me in music is diversity by playing contemporary jazz, moving over to pop, R&B and the Latin pop world with Gloria Tevi. It's a whole other thing. It's a different language and the music is completely different. I really feel as much as I've been in music I'm still a student. I'm learning from everyone and every experience as much as I can so I can become better.
AAJ: Tequila Moon's producer, Paul Brown, is probably the go-to guy in smooth jazz today. How did you land him as your producer?
JJ: It was a dream of mine to work with him since my first CD and I checked out where was going to be and what he was up to. By his track record I knew he was the guy, so I basically waited for him. In 2004, I introduced myself at the Newport Beach Jazz Festival and told him I really wanted to work with him; I was a up-and-coming saxophonist and had a lot of potential. I had to sell the product.
He was very busy at the time working with Norman Brown, Rick Braun and everybody else so he said, "I don't have time. I'm mainly working with signed artists at this point, but good luck. Give me a call when you make it."
AAJ: Sounds like he had heard that sales pitch before, huh?
JJ: I was really persistent. I knew I wanted to work with him so I kept up the correspondence. I invited him to my performances and tried to catch his shows. Eventually, he said, "Why don't you come play in my band...you'd be a great addition to what we're doing...you can sing on this one song and play sax on the other...it'll be fun."
We had our first show together in 2006 and after that he said, "Let's work together. I want to produce you." It's been a fantastic relationship musically. We're both on the same page. He likes to write and I like to write and together we come up with some really cool stuff. We just go for it. There are not really any borders.
AAJ: How many songs on Tequila Moon did you write?
JJ: Six [out of eleven tracks].
AAJ: Is there a song that has a particular meaning for you that you can say, "I'm glad I got this one on the album?"
JJ: One of my favorites is "Fiesta Velada," because it's a party song. It means "all night party" and it reminds me of my childhood and family, growing up with big parties at my house. Those were the only times we were allowed to stay up past nine. It was a fun time and that song captures that. That makes it special to me.
AAJ: Your Latin heritage is very much in evidence on the album. This is not just a R&B, pseudo-funk rehash.
JJ: There's a Latin undertone to every song throughout this album and I was very pleased with that. It's like a story. I think that's going to be the concept to me as an artist since that is such a big part of me.
AAJ: When you do a song like Sergio Mendes's "Mas Que Nada" how do you decide you want to sing it, but not play?
JJ: I think music is just one big part of me as far as playing alto sax versus flute versus piano versus guitar versus singing. It's all the same thing. I grew up playing a lot of instruments. When they asked me to sing on the album, I had done backup singing before, but lead vocals are a whole other story. I studied a lot. I listened to the original by Sergio Mendes and takes by Jorge Ben and Marc Antoine. Then I came up with my own.
The song is in Portuguese. I'm fluent in Spanish and Portuguese is very similar. I listened to the pronunciation of the words and tried to think of the meaning of the song. It's about a girl who wants to dance. I tried to capture the spirit of the song. The band came up with an awesome arrangement. Gregg Karukas thought up that cool keyboard sound at the very beginning.
AAJ: How did you decide to cover Phoebe Snow's "Poetry Man," which is another classic written long before you were born.
JJ: I actually go the chance to meet her last year and perform with her. She's a fantastic woman. I got to tell her, "Hey, I recorded your song and it's a pleasure meeting you." The words to that song are very touching. Paul [Brown] selected that piece. He thought it would add a great dimension to the album. We have Latin. We have organic. We have a few covers. Paul thought it would be a great song especially for a female to perform.
AAJ: Why did you choose to play, but not sing the song?
JJ: It was actually one of the first songs we recorded and we had the idea to play it on the soprano. Adding vocals never came up, but I have been thinking about doing it live.
JJ: That does happen sometimes, but it's usually with a different crowd. Usually the smooth jazz crowd knows better because they're familiar with Mindi Abair, Candy Dulfer and Pamela Williams. I think those women are really comfortable with who they are and they out there doing their thing and what they do, but I'm just trying to do the best I can by being myself.
I'm a young female. I'm not ashamed of what I can do or how I look. I feel really comfortable in my skin. Unfortunately, there will probably be some people who downplay the music because of the image. To those people I invite them to come hear me because I can really play.
AAJ: When I first heard "Tequila Moon" I had no clue if Jessy J. was a guy or a gal. It just sounded good to me.
JJ: Yeah, when I met Pat Prescott (from KTWV 94.7 the Wave in Los Angeles ) she thought I was a boy until she saw me. When that happens it makes me feel better because I know people are just listening to the music and know that it's good. I try to focus on the positive aspects and I have to be me. It would change the music if I tried to downplay any aspect of who I am.
AAJ: Being yourself seems to be working for you
JJ: I started writing for my next project. It's going to be a little different from Tequila Moon. Maybe a little more singing. I was also nominated by the International Jazz Awards for Best New Artist and I'm looking forward to that.
I'm just really thankful to be a working musician and get a chance to do the things I love to do.
Jessy J, Tequila Moon (Peak Records, 2008)
Jess J, Jessy J (Self Produced, 2007)
Photos courtesy of Jessy J