By Jonathan Widran
With the highly anticipated release of her Peak Records debut, Tequila Moon, on Mar. 4, saxophonist Jessy J broke fresh ground both musically and demographically in the smooth jazz genre. She has 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 С adapted from her given name Jessica Spinella С 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, OR-born, Hemet, CA-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 Banda style of her dad’s home country. Her equal love for pop music and legendary saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley are also clear influences running throughout the 11 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 С his 50-plus No. 1 Radio & Records smooth jazz hits include tracks by Boney James, Peter White, Euge Groove and Norman Brown С 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.
"When I first told people I wanted to make solo albums, some said I was crazy, because ‘women can’t play jazz."
The saxophonist’s tenor-driven first single, “Tequila Moon,” was an instant hit at smooth jazz radio, quickly reaching the Top 20 on R&R’s airplay chart and consistently placing among the most added and most played tracks since its January release. For the week ending Feb. 29, it rose an impressive 10 spots and cracked the Top 10 at No. 9.
While Jessy’s off to a promising start, she’s not taking anything for granted in a genre that has seen diminishing CD sales despite healthy festival, tour and cruise attendance over the past few years. She’s aligned herself with some of the best behind-the- scenes forces in the genre: manager Steve Chapman (whose clients as head of Chapman & Co. include Abair, Paul Brown, Rick Braun, Richard Elliot, David Benoit and Gerald Albright), veteran radio promoter Deborah Lewow; and longtime smooth jazz publicist Sheryl Feuerstein.
The promotional campaign for Tequila Moon is aimed at a cross-section of demographics. Jessy’s done a CNN Radio spot, an interview on Maxim Radio On Sirius and has hooked up as a featured sax player on one of smooth jazz’s biggest all-star annual spring and summer tours, Guitars & Saxes. To increase her visibility in the Latin market, Jessy is working with Diana Baron Media Relations; Jessy’s late February-early March interview itineraries included stops with People magazine en Espanol, CNN en Espanol and the L.A.-based Spanish language lifestyle show Con Chile y Limon.
As a sideperson, Jessy J has built-in cred with the Latin music audience. While she has toured this past 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.
“I really feel like I have a team of great A-listers working with me now, and I have great expectations and hopes for the project,” says Jessy. “I’ve heard people talk about some of the harder realities of the market these days, but I think it’s about taking baby steps at first and just making sure as many people are aware of me and the album as possible, covering all corners and not leaving out any details. Before pursuing a career as a solo artist in smooth jazz, I did a lot of straightahead jazz gigs, but this genre allows me to combine all the Latin, jazz and pop elements I love.
"The musicians who do traditional jazz are more conservative,” she adds, “and it’s much harder for a woman to make inroads. I can’t think of one female instrumentalist breaking through these days. In fact when I first told people I wanted to make solo albums, some said I was crazy because ‘women can’t play jazz.’ But thanks to Mindi and Candy, I realized they can play smooth jazz. Besides performing for such open-minded and enthusiastic audiences, I enjoy the camaraderie I have with the artists, who are all so supportive. I love being around the kind of positive people who love smooth jazz. I feel now that I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”
A true musical prodigy, Jessy began playing piano at age four and spent most of her childhood as a competitive artist, performing at major conferences, competitions and festivals. By 15, she was named Piano State Champion at the Bela Bartok Festival in California and was playing in many honor bands like The Grammy Band and performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival. When she turned pro after graduating from USC with a degree in jazz studies С she was named “Most Outstanding Jazz Student” of her class РР she jumped quickly into recording sessions with artists like Michael Buble and toured with the Temptations (2005-6) and Jessica Simpson.
In 2004, Jessy joined the cast of the off-Broadway show Blast! and its offshoot show Cyberblast, drawing on her multitude of skills as an actress, singer, dancer and sax player as she performed throughout the U.S., in London and Tokyo. One night after a show in London, billionaire entrepreneur David Plattner, founder of the RainTrust Organization, pulled her aside and told her that her combination of musical ability and stage presence translated into true star quality. His comment that she could be a female Harry Connick, Jr. stuck with her. Once she got off the road, her friend, drummer Jamie Tate С a fellow clinician with the Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute С invited her to check out his gig with Abair at the Newport Beach Jazz Festival, which further inspired Jessy to go after the career she is now launching with Tequila Moon.
“Having an opportunity to play with so many wonderful musicians really inspires me to get out there and become even better as a player, writer and performer,” she says. “I don’t take any of this for granted, and I am thankful for every great experience, and even each interview I get to do. What’s exciting is that every day brings a new goal to pursue and something exciting to be grateful for.”
Contact Sheryl Feurerstein, email@example.com;