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Jessy J returns to the funky blues, jazz and R&B grooves of her youth.
Growing up in a big Mexican-American family in Southern California, Jessy J enjoyed a childhood full of rambunctious family gatherings accompanied by an ongoing soundtrack of Latin, jazz and pop music. The multifaceted saxophonist has mastered those genres throughout a professional career during which she scored a dozen No. 1 smooth jazz hits over the past 14 years; toured with Jessica Simpson, Michael Bolton and Seal; played in the band for multiple seasons of Dancing With the Stars; and worked with Sheila E. and Mexican greats like Gloria Trevi and the late Armando Manzanero.
With the release of Blue, her eighth album — and third on her indie label Changi Records — Jessy shares the restless, bursting-at-the-seams emotions she felt during the pandemic (particularly during quarantine), putting some of her most intense and emotionally powerful tenor playing ever on tracks that hearken back to her early passion for the blues as it connects to the jazz and R&B she loved and played in her youth.
She first heard this music around age 9, when her sax teacher turned her onto Charlie Parker, but her excitement for I-IV-V chord blues-influenced jazz caught fire when she was a high school sophomore and studied at the Idyllwild Arts Academy with the late Gordon Brisker. When he turned her onto Cannonball Addlerley, she became obsessed with his fusion of gospel, R&B, blues — and yes, a little Latin jazz.
“The song that won me over to all things Cannonball was ‘Groovy Samba’ from the 1963 album Cannonball’s Bossa Nova, with Sergio Mendes on piano,” Jessy recalls. “It was a driving samba with full lush percussion with a Latin twist in the main melody and distinctive blues elements towards the end. Cannonball’s sound was deep and so full of life that it was like you were feeling everything he was going through. I also loved what he did with Joe Zawinul’s ‘Country Preacher,’ incorporating blues and gospel like he was playing in a church. Those are the songs that made me want to be an artist. My first No. 1 song, ‘Tequila Moon,’ had a simplistic blues element, but after so many years as an artist, it’s great to have the opportunity to do a full album paying homage to the kind of blues that changed my life.”
The overall vibe of the collection took shape after Jessy penned “Spinnin’,” the title of which relates to the shared COVID-era experience of spinning one’s wheels while waiting for some kind of return to normal. The track’s punchy, hard-swinging retro fire perfectly captures the helpless anger she and so many of her peers felt over losing (at least) a summer’s worth of gigs. With the exception of Jeff Lorber, who co-wrote and co-produced the Crusaders-esque lead single “Dig It” and the funked-out, Cannonball-inspired “Malt Shop,” Jessy handled all the production herself, working remotely with pianist-arranger Jay Rowe and his East Coast crew.
For an album titled Blue, Jessy incorporates a great diversity of styles — from James Brown and Ray Charles styled soul-blues and a hustling beat around the minor-key melody of “Dance Beat,” through the mid-’60s Herbie Hancock modal jazz-swing romp “Summer Swing” and a raucous old-school cooker (“Mini’s Bounce”) based on the gait of her late dog. The grand finale, “Song for David,” is a lighthearted reflection on her new life as a mother of two boys; like constantly active children, it features a series of unpredictable tempo shifts, back and forth from a gentle sway to a feisty jazz quartet.
Though she’s always kept the idea of doing a blues album simmering on the back burner, Jessy’s freedom with her own label — and her desire to emerge from the pandemic era with horns at full blaze and groove catharsis on her mind — ensured that Blue wouldn’t be about just one shade.
“After I recorded ‘Spinnin’,” she says, “I had the idea to do a blues album — not straight blues, but with elements of it wherever the spirit of the music led me. The basic aspect of classic blues is call and response, a solo statement followed by the answer of a full ensemble. In my case, the storytelling process was about me shaping the narrative, then having the band respond however they saw fit, usually in incredible, unexpected ways.” - Jonathan Widran