08/08/12 By Marjorie Savoie
Jessy J and Urban Jazz Coalition
Milford Uncorked! Wine and Jazz presented by Neko Productions
Although it was Jessy J and The Urban Jazz Coalition who lured me on a 2 hour drive to Milford, CT, I can already hear this very special venue beckoning me to return.
Studio 8 is a gem hidden quietly among the buildings of an industrial drive called, Pepe’s Farm Rd in Milford, CT. It may not look like much to the passerby, but the red carpet at the entrance is a small clue to a really big treasure! It’s an easy venue to get to, and parking is a breeze. As I stepped through the door, it was as if I had been transported to a different dimension.
This was my first visit to this venue, and I was very impressed. As guest, Stephanie Storms, from Stratford, CT put it, “It’s very New York.” There is a shimmering effect in the room, which is difficult to describe or capture in photography. The walls are draped in white, as a veil of crystal clear beads frames the stage, reflecting blue stage lights and pink Japanese lanterns, creating a sparkling violet haze. Little tea light candles are suspended from the ceiling; electric of course, for safety’s sake, but no less charming. Every detail of this club sets the mood, but it’s most important features are a phenomenal sound system and outstanding acoustics!
The music began promptly at 4pm, and Urban Jazz Coalition opened with their original tune, “Gravitate”, from their album by the same name, released in 2010. Written in Dorian mode, this tune has a progressive groove and a mysterious feel to it, which fit the setting perfectly. Now I’ve heard this band before, 3 years ago at the Hoop City Jazz Festival in Springfield, and even back then the first things that caught my attention were that they had a really big sound, and they were meticulously tight. Having heard them in an intimate venue, with a powerful sound system, I now have a better appreciation for how big their sound really is!
The Urban Jazz Coalition is comprised of 6 outstanding instrumentalists, each one a master of his craft. The very funky and animated Phil Raney is their bassist and bandleader, and also the source of some great humor! Duane Tribune demonstrates amazing versatility on guitar, switching instruments, effects, and styles many times throughout their show. Richard Randolph is featured on Saxophone, with an amazing technique inspired by legends like John Coltrane, Grover Washington, Art Porter, and Cannonball Adderley. Keyboardist Brandon Howard makes full use of the many sounds at his fingertips, via his Yamaha S90-ES and Roland XP-80 keyboards. The band is also blessed to have two phenomenal percussionists: Rich “Rico” Adams, who sets down a kickin’ groove on drums, and Hector Maldonado, who seasons the band’s sound with Congas, Bongos, Chimes, Bata, and other assorted LP and TOCA brand Latin Percussion.
Having played music for two weeks in the rain at other locations, the band celebrated a break in the weather by treating us to a joyful, exotic tune by The Late George Howard, entitled, “Dancing In The Sun”. They created a perfect tropical blend.
Next was another original tune, also from their “Gravitate” project, entitled, “Saguaro Sunset”. This tune was written in the dessert, and bassist Phil Raney had us all in hysterics, as he introduced the tune by recounting one band member’s misadventure with a cactus! The tune itself, however, was no joke…a seriously great piece of writing! Duane Tribune did a beautiful solo on this tune, using a Yamaha “Silent Nylon” Acoustic Electric Classical Guitar, which features a very unique cutaway body. The tone of this instrument was amazingly rich and full, and Tribune’s technique was magnificent. Richard Randolph’s solo on soprano sax was exquisite, and there was great interaction between Randolph and Tribune.
Following this was Brandon Howard’s haunting rendition of, “Piano in the Dark” by Brenda Russell. Very emotional and expressive soloing on the keys was complimented by equally moving guitar and sax solos. The drama was heightened by dynamics and sudden breaks of silence. Again, the band was unbelievably tight in their execution of this well written arrangement.
One moment in their set that truly defined the kind of boldness and confidence these musicians possess was when they took on an unbelievably fast,complex tune by Jeff Lorber, entitled, “Surreptitious”. This is a tune requires extreme levels of speed and precision, and I imagine that not many bands would take on the challenge, but these guys nailed it! The audience was on their feet even before the song was over, applauding in awe of what they were hearing. It absolutely took my breath away, and earned my deepest respect.
Then the real fun began, as they brought the whole audience to their feet, with “Never Too Much” by Luther Vandross, featuring Duane Tribune on guitar, sounding very George Benson-ish. They had great energy, and the audience immediately plugged into it, rising from their seats and beginning to dance in the aisles. This is another great feature of Studio 8; there is plenty of room to dance.
But the tune that really flipped the party switch was their power-packed arrangement of, “Want You Back”, by the Jackson 5. The excitement in the room was electric, as people cut loose, dancing and singing. And the best part was, the party was just getting started, because Jessy J was still on deck!
After a brief intermission, Urban Jazz Coalition returned to the stage, along with keyboardist Jay Rowe, from Milford, CT. And then, the moment we were all waiting for…Jessy J took the stage. There are three words for Jessy…hot, Hot, HOT!!! This lady is muy caliente! She is the whole package: talented, beautiful, sexy, charming, articulate, and down to earth, with a great sense of humor that keeps audiences engaged. From the moment she stepped into the room, all eyes were on her every move.
Jessy’s tone was rich and sultry, and she played as she always plays; straight from the heart. From the very beginning of her set, audience members were out of their seats and dancing. She opened the set with her smash hit, “Tequila Moon”, which was number 1 in the Billboard Jazz Charts, and remained in the top 10 for 31 consecutive weeks in 2008.
This brings me to a subject that may be a source of contention among jazz enthusiasts. What is it that propels someone to the top of the charts? Some may argue that technical ability is the key success, and yet there are so many players out there who excel technically and have never had a hit record. “Tequila Moon” became a hit because it has a solid, memorable melodic hook. Hear it once, and you can easily sing along with it. Hear it more than once, and you’ll remember it next Tuesday. Few songs are so memorable that you can actually hear them playing in your mind from the moment you hear the title. “Take Five”, by Dave Brubeck. “Taste of Honey”, by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. “Feels So Good”, by Chuck Mangione. All these tunes have one thing in common: they have a solid, memorable melodic hook. This is what sets Jessy J apart. She knows how to write a solid hook, and she surrounds herself with equally skilled composers.
Jessy’s next song was another original, this time mellow and sentimental, entitled, “Sin Ti” (Without You), featuring a beautiful piano solo by Jay Rowe. There was a beautiful exchange of solos between Jessy and Duane Tribune on this song.
Next they did a tune entitled, “Mas Que Nada”. This song was made famous by Sergio Mendes, and there is more recent modernized Hip Hop version by the Black Eye’d Peas. Jessy’s rendition is traditional and closer to the Mendes version, although she does make a few rhythmic variations that give the piece a really nice flow. She sings beautifully in Portuguese, and her live performance was delicioso! This is such a fun song, and it’s very easy for the audience to join in, even if they’ve never heard it before. Many in the audience knew it well, and were singing their hearts out! The instrumentation on this live version was almost identical to Jessy’s recorded version on the, “Tequila Moon” CD. Hector Maldonado even included the use of a percussion instrument called a, “Cuica”, which sounds something like some kind of a tropical bird or monkey, which had been used on the recorded version. Phil Raney also played a nasty slap bass solo on this tune, and he sounded amazing!
Jessy followed this with another number one hit song, “Tropical Rain”, from her, “True Love” project. Again, this song features a very memorable hook, and the arrangement really packs a punch!
One of the high points of Jessy’s show was her performance of, “Oye Como Va”, which was originally made famous by Tito Puente, and later became a huge hit for Santana. Jessy’s version had great energy, and it was a great song choice for her. Duane Tribune really captured Carlos Santana’s style on this tune.
Next Jessy gave keyboardist Jay Rowe a chance to shine, asking him to play, “Rainbow Seeker” by Joe Sample. It was rich, complex, and magnificent. Jessy used this tune to transition into a song that she and Joe Sample wrote together, called, “Rainbow Gold”, from her latest CD, “Hot Sauce”. This album also made it to number one in the Billboard Jazz Album Charts. She also played, the title track, “Hot Sauce” which is another well written tune with great energy.
But the most memorable moment in Jessy J’s show as undoubtedly her performance of, “Conga” by Gloria Estefan. It was absolutely phenomenal in every way! Her vocal performance was spot on, great delivery on sax, and she really involved the audience in this one. In fact, she came down into the audience, and within seconds, a conga line had formed behind her! The whole place erupted into people singing, “Ole, ole, ole, ole!”
The conclusion of this number really revealed the heart of Jessy J, as she never did go back up onto the stage. She led the conga line around on the floor and really savored the moment. When she did conclude the song, she took some time to greet and hug every person who had come up to dance with her. She was not in any hurry, and it was clear that there was no greater priority to her than greeting her fans.
But of course, after such a stellar performance, her audience would not let her go so easily! Jessy returned to cheers of, “Baila! Baila! Baila!”, and she gave her fans exactly what they were hollering for…a blazing encore of, “Baila!” (Dance!), from her, “True Love” CD. And this is how “Milford Uncorked” at Studio 8 concluded; with people on their feet, dancing the night away to the scintillating sounds of Jessy J and Urban Jazz Coalition. Wine and sizzling hot Jazz: The perfect combination!