June 2008

Jessy J: Super Saxy

Combining song and sex appeal is an age-old attention-grabber in popular music, as even a passing glance at MTV, magazines and Web sites makes clear. When it comes to jazz, Michael Bublé and Harry Connick Jr. define sexy, but they’re not ripping their shirts off. But when a female jazz artist flashes some skin, a question is posed: Is there a chance of losing credibility due to the genre’s “serious” nature? Fingers may wag, but displaying a sexy side has done nothing to diminish the careers of established female jazz stars like Eliane Elias, Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Jane Monheit. Probably the opposite—it’s a double standard, but a damn successful one.

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Jessy J

The latest sexy siren on the scene is Jessy J, a tenor and sometime soprano saxophonist on the smooth side who cites serious jazz influences but is marketed as a glamour girl on her debut CD, Tequila Moon. Her barely-there black dress on the CD’s back cover doesn’t leave much to the imagination. But J, who is in her late 20s, has a quick riposte to those who say her sexy image compromises her musical integrity. “It doesn’t seem to come up with female artists in any other genre. However, putting that aside, as a female musician I believe it’s important to be feminine while allowing the power of my music to be heard.”

Andi Howard, president of Peak Records, J’s label, has a similar take. “There was no decision made at the label to highlight her beauty,” says Howard, who is female. “I certainly don’t think the fact she is beautiful and sexy should negate that she is an extremely talented musician. Jessy clearly has the entire package, which has not hurt such artists as Beyoncé, Madonna, Carrie Underwood, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez and any other female artist in any genre who possesses both beauty and talent. Why should a smooth-jazz artist be any different? The fact that anyone would think her having the whole package would hurt her chances of being taken seriously is ludicrous.”

J, a graduate of the University of Southern California, certainly has street cred as a musician. Born Jessica Arellano in Portland, Ore., newly single and now officially going by the name Jessy J, she was raised by her Mexican-American parents in Hemet, Calif., and now lives in the Los Angeles County town of Glendora. “Growing up, I always had Latin music in the house, and it’s kind of just in me to play that style. The first time I played Afro-Cuban music, I just felt something inside of me that was really pulling me toward [it]. I started including more of that in [my] jazz and then a little bit of pop on top of that, and now the smooth-jazz element really brings things together.”

She refined her chops at festivals and in the Grammy Band, and went on to perform with Bublé, Jessica Simpson and Michael Bolton. The bilingual saxophonist also continues to join Mexican superstar Gloria Trevi on tours. “Spanish was my first language and I didn’t start speaking English until kindergarten,” she says. “Even then I protested a little bit because I was so used to speaking Spanish. But I’m really glad that I learned Spanish first because I feel like I’ll never forget it.”

In 2004, J joined the cast of the off-Broadway show Blast! and drew on her multitude of skills as an actress, singer, dancer and sax player as she performed throughout the U.S., in London and in Tokyo. Catching a concert by smooth-jazz saxophonist Mindi Abair inspired and helped J find the musical path that led to Tequila Moon, which was helmed by super-producer Paul Brown. Tequila Moon is a mix of originals and covers like Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man,” “Song for You,” “Besame Mucho” and “Mas Que Nada.” She sings on the latter two at the request of Peak, which rightly wanted some emphasis on her vocals.

It was Brown (J calls him “the mastermind”) who gave J her Kenny G-like stage name. “My last name was a little bit long, hard to spell and hard to remember. ‘J’ was cute because it was like jazz or jazzy. Working with Paul has been amazing. He’s very organic when he brings music out of people. He wants it to be very heartfelt and natural, and that’s how I look at music, too. I see it as a conversation between people versus notes on a page. Each song had a good story behind it. Even ‘Poetry Man.’ What do these words mean? Who was Phoebe Snow? I didn’t even know of her; Paul introduced me to that type of music.”

Although her CD is one of the best smooth-jazz CDs of the year, there’s still that sexy image to deal with. The album’s photo shoot, arranged by Peak, was shot at a lushly landscaped Los Angeles house that attempted to help set the mood for the Tequila Moon concept. “You see the moon in background a lot,” says J, who appears on the cover reclining on a lounge chair. There are also two liner-note shots of her in a pool. “The whole pool thing kind of came up last minute. The photographer said, ‘What do think about taking a dip in the pool and we’ll get some shots?’ I’m actually an avid swimmer [she’s a member of the Masters Aquatic Swim Team at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena] and I was down for it. So I jumped in the pool and those ended up being my favorite.”

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