Latin jazz is a popular and easily defined genre, as is contemporary jazz, but you seldom see the two as skillfully combined as they are on a new release from Peak Records (Concord), Tequila Moon. It showcases the talented saxophonist Jessy J, who not only basks in the spotlight as lead instrumentalist, but also adds some nice vocalizations.
Jessy J (Jessica Spinella) began as a piano prodigy, spending years studying, performing, and winning musical competitions, but later switched to sax, a move that led to her career as a jazz professional. Although still just in her twenties, she’s put together an impressive resume that includes playing behind everyone from Michael Bublé to Michael Bolton, and even an appearance in an off-Broadway musical.
Jessy eventually gained major notice as a part of contemporary jazz icon Paul Brown’s group, and the veteran guitarist is himself deeply involved in this album, not only co-writing several of the pieces with Jessy but also acting as producer. He also provides some nice guitar play, but mostly just offers backup and support, letting Jessy take center stage.
She doesn’t disappoint. Backed by Brown and a few other pros, including keyboardists Ricky Peterson and Gregg Karukas, Roberto Vally on bass, and Sergio Gonzalez on percussion, Jessy shows a real affinity for Latin jazz. It’s not surprising since she grew up in a house filled with Latin music, and considers it a vital part of her Mexican-American heritage.
The title tune was released for radio play in January and has been climbing the request charts since then. It’s a good choice to open the album because it sets a lush and dreamy mood, and quickly establishes Jessy’s smooth, low-toned tenor sax style, as she effortlessly carries the melody while still finding room to improvise.
It’s one of the best of the pieces composed by Jessy and Brown, as is “Sin Ti/Without You,” a romantic tune with a samba beat that features some of Jessy’s best improvisations. Another good listen was the cleverly-named “PB n’ J,” which is a kid’s favorite sandwich but also the initials of the composers, and it’s a song that allows Jessy a lot of latitude as she duels with Brown’s guitar.
But in addition to the duo’s compositions, the album features a strong mix of tracks that includes everything from Jessy’s impressively lilting soprano sax play on Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man,” to “Turquoise Street,” a piece written by Kiki Ebsen that is probably closer to the sound of traditional contemporary jazz.
And finally, reminiscing about the music-filled home of her childhood, Jessy puts away her sax and takes vocal turns on two Latin standards. On “Besame Mucho,” her softly melodic singing voice is perfectly backed by Brown’s guitar in full Spanish mode, and it’s probably his most vibrant spot on the album.
Jessy also is fully engaged with her smooth vocal on “Más Que Nada,” which takes us back to the peak years of Brazilian Jazz, when the song was in the songbook for just about every singer and was the theme of Sergio Mendes.
A highly recommended new release, and a performer to watch. She will be heard from again..