Jessy J: Balancing Serious Skills and Sexy Image

Jeff Winbush By

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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. "
JessyJHow you react to Jessy J depends a great deal upon whether you see her or hear her first.

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."

Jessy JAAJ: 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 them—how 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."

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