In a crowded field of contemporary saxophone players, Jessy J’s funky, Latino flavoured playing stands head and shoulders above the rest. Since her first album in 2008, produced by Paul Brown, she has been awarded with a #1 album, #1 track and named Debut Artist of the Year. I caught up with Jessy to find out more about her story, and her approach to playing sax.
NM: It’s amazing how much you have done. I was surprised to read you started out playing piano. When did you make the switch to saxophone and what turned you on about playing sax?
JJ: I started playing piano when I was 4. That was my main instrument, all the way through High School. But I started playing the saxophone when I was in third grade. My Mom encouraged us to join elementary band. I really wanted to play the flute but there were so many people playing the flute, so they asked me to play the saxophone instead.
So I played the sax and I liked it because it had a great personality and a warm tone. I liked the idea of improvisation and jazz too. That really caught my attention.
When I graduated from High School I decided to pursue saxophone as my main profession. I practice piano still and learn classical music, and I mainly write my music at the piano, but jazz sax became my main objective.
NM: Did you go to USC [University of Southern California] as a Saxophone Major?
JJ: That’s right. I did a Jazz Studies major, and I practised saxophone. I did have a few piano classes too – theory, composition, – stuff like that.
NM: Can you remember what turned you on to playing jazz on the saxophone before you went to USC?
JJ: When I was 15 I was really involved in a lot of Honour Bands, like the California State Honour Band, and then the Grammy Band. I was studying the saxophone with a saxophone instructor from Los Angeles, Gordon Brisker. He really spent a lot of time with me and that’s when I purchased my Mark VI alto sax which was a big deal for me. It is a beautiful instrument and I knew I was going to be a professional at that point. All I wanted to do was play music.
NM: Can you tell me a bit about your journey after USC?
JJ: I wanted to do music full time, so basically any gig that I would get, I would do. And there came an opportunity to do an off-Broadway show with some of my friends from the Disney Band. While I was at USC I did the All American College Band at Disney World and also at Anaheim at Disneyland.
NM: That’s a good gig right? Did you get to play a lot in that gig?
JJ: Yes it’s a great gig. I think Eric Marienthal did it, Jeff Kashiwa – there’s a lot of great alumni from the program. It’s an experience – you play all day, maybe five hours in the park, and three hours warming up behind the scenes, so you get eight hours a day of playing – it’s a really good gig for chops!
NM: Were you doing that while you were studying?
JJ: No that was in the summer, while I was off school I would be doing that gig at Disneyland. Then my roommate from the Disneyland Band told me they were auditioning for saxophones for the new “Blast!” tour and I was really excited because I felt it would really propel me in the direction I wanted to be, which was as a solo artist.
In the training for “Blast!” they have acting and dancing training as well as music and ensemble playing. There’s a lot of doubles like saxophone, flute, clarinet, alto clarinet, bass flute, – a lot of instruments that I wasn’t familiar with. So I enjoyed it for that, but also for singing – we had vocal coaching.
Also the performance experience was invaluable. We were playing and performing every day, rain or shine, in the theatre. That really gave me a great professional foundation for what was to come after that.
NM: It must have been a great experience. And you did some touring with that show as well?
JJ: Yes I did a tour in the US, so we did a lot of colleges here; we played in New York – all over. And then we went on to the Queen’s Theatre in London for nine months. It’s funny – it’s right by Pizza Express so I always walk by there when I play.
After that we toured in Japan for about four months. But at that point I already knew that I wanted to do my own band and that was my main goal. So I came back and I really focussed – I got to work with Paul Brown and asked him to produce some songs for me and I started playing in his band. We got a demo together and that’s how I got my record deal with Concord Music Group.
NM: You talked earlier about listening to Cannonball and checking out that really fundamental, straight-ahead Bop type of playing. Your albums are in a more commercial vein. How did you make that transition from one to the other?
JJ: I enjoy all styles of music. I love pop music too, so my idea was to do a sort of Latin Pop Jazz album. The melodies are simple – the solos can get more complex, but for the most part the changes are like a pop song. There’s not a lot of changes but in my last album, the track “Back To The Basics” has some cool changes in it. I kind of go back and forward between my love for straight-ahead music and Latin music as well as pop music. I like all of it.
NM: And the great thing about being all-encompassing like that is that you reach a much bigger audience.
JJ: Thanks, yes. I have been thinking about doing a more straight-ahead album but I don’t know – I’m working on a Christmas album right now so I’ll see if the time ever comes to do a straight-ahead album.
NM: So were there some more commercial artists who inspired you?
JJ: I love Grover Washington, Jnr. because I felt that he also came from a straight-ahead background and decided to do more of a soul jazz and I really like that. In his solos you can tell in his vocabulary he’s playing a lot of bee-bop stuff over the contemporary sound.
I like Stanley Turrentine because he had a lot of straight-ahead training. And then of course George Benson is a straight-ahead player who does everything, and Earl Klugh, – those people like Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum, Kenny Garrett – I like the artists who can transfer back and forth between the two seamlessly. So you don’t know whether you are listening to a smooth jazz album or a contemporary album.
NM: Or a fusion album!
JJ: Yes – and of course Jeff Lorber – I have to mention him! One of my favourite Latin artists that crossed over is Ricky Martin – in 2000 he came out with La Vida Loca which was a number 1 hit in the USA and in Latin America, and that inspired me more to do my Latin Jazz in America and make it more universal and international.
NM: Bringing the Latin sounds to an American audience.
JJ: Yeah, and it’s been popular. People like it even if they can’t speak Spanish or Portuguese to know the songs, they are familiar with them enough to really enjoy them.
NM: How did the connection with Paul Brown come about?
JJ: I saw a show of his on TV and also read a feature article on him in Jazz Times Magazine. This was around 2006 and I already had my own band but I wanted a record deal and a producer and a manager. All of these things. I just kept seeing Paul’s name everywhere.
Jeff Kashiwa was one of my clinicians at the Disney Band and he invited me to a show, at the Newport Beach Jazz Festival. It turned out Paul Brown was playing right before him which was perfect – I could see them both at once!
So I heard Paul Brown play and I really liked his performance. I told him “I’m a big fan, I really love your production as well – I’d like to work with you”. He was really busy already working with Warner Brothers and a bunch of their artists like Rick Braun. So he said “I’m booked, but I’ll check out your stuff”.
I gave him a CD and the next day he called back and he said “I really enjoyed your songs but unfortunately I’m busy. We’ll keep in touch” or something like that. But I was very persistent with him, I continued to call him, and I sent him letters and videos of my performances, and invited him to all my concerts.
NM: You stalked him basically didn’t you!
JJ: Yeah, I stalked him basically. I had a lot of persistence with him and fortunately it paid off – six to seven months later he called me and said “I can’t produce your music but why don’t you do a gig with my band and we’ll see what happens.” So I started touring with him and his band and then we started working together on my music.
NM: That’s a great story for upcoming musicians to hear. And, a great reminder that you need to be proactive about your own career.
JJ: It’s funny, I’ve been doing it my whole life so without even knowing it, it just becomes like a daily thing, like “today I’m going to practice, or today I’m going to put a video on YouTube” – it kind of just all flows. For the most part every day I’m at it doing something with my career.
I read a quote once, it was something like “be sure to get what you like or you’ll be forced to like what you get!”
NM: You mentioned for “Blast!” you were doubling on all the clarinets as well – was that something you were doing through USC?
JJ: Yes, and in the Disney Band we had a lot of doubles, and also in high school I doubled as well. I started playing the flute in fifth grade with my friend – because that was my first choice, but since I didn’t get it I would trade instruments with my friend who was also in band. When we went home we would switch instruments – she would play my sax, I would play the flute. Then my sister played the clarinet so sometimes I would borrow her clarinet and play a little bit. I really like the flute because it’s sweet and so pure. I played the flute in the Henry Mancini Orchestra, so that also inspired me more to pursue it.
NM: It’s a great instrument but it’s one of things you’ve always got to be working on.
JJ: Yes, the flute is amazing and there’s so much great literature for it, like Mozart – the songs that are available for the flute are lovely. I wish there was better classical saxophone music to be honest, there are some great songs, but when you’re talking about repertoire, there’s so much more for the flute.
NM: Do you have some practice habits that you stick to?
JJ: I do, I try to do warm-ups. I work through long tones and still use a tuner to make sure everything is working well with my instrument. Then I’ll do some overtones, a little bit of skill work, and then I’ll get into a song or a transcription of some sort. And then I’ll start writing because that’s my passion.
NM: So are most practice sessions focussed around the writing – warming up, maintenance then getting on with writing?
JJ: It depends if I’m working on an album. Right now I’m working on an arrangement of Jingle Bells for my Christmas album so I’ve been experimenting with that every day.
Things like – what about changing the ending? What about this being the solo section? And what about this chord? So a lot of my focus in my practice now is for the new album.
But once the album comes out, that’s when I start practising other music.
NM: When you are writing, do you do that on the computer, or the piano? How do you go about doing it?
JJ: I don’t do any writing on the computer. I try to make it as organic as possible. So I prefer to sing, and if I’m not singing then I’m playing the piano or the sax.
NM: With your overtones do you have set things that you like to practice? Did you use the Sigurd Rascher book?
NM: Isn’t that crazy? I’m sure I got that book when I was about twelve, and I can still use it now! It’s one of those books you just keep using for ever!
JJ: It’s just the classic technique stuff – I think it’s always good to do it, even for piano I’m still doing Hanon exercises – it keeps my muscles strong.
NM: If you find your schedule is really busy and you are really jammed for time, what’s the one thing that you would fall back on when it comes to maintenance practice on your saxophone?
JJ: Probably long tones and scales. Reeds are important to me so just getting a good reed could take anywhere from twenty to thirty minutes.
NM: It sucks up a lot of time doesn’t it? Have you made the transition to synthetic reeds?
JJ: Yes, I use plastic covered reeds.
NM: Do you use them all the time?
JJ: I do. On my alto saxophone I use La Voz, but for my tenor I use plasticover. A lot of people do now.
NM: I might have to give the another go! So how’s the Christmas album coming on?
JJ: It’s great, I’m about 50% done. I’m doing it in advance because sometimes I’ll get busy touring and I don’t want to rush it. I’d rather finish it a year early than rush it at the end.
For details on tour dates in the USA and Europe check out http://jessyj.com
Jessy’s set up:
I have two tenor saxophones and one alto.
Tenor : Selmer Mark VI and a Super Action 80 Series 2
Otto Link Seven Star mouthpiece with a Selmer ligature and D’Addario Plastic Cover Reed size 2 or 2.5
Alto : Selmer Mark VI
Morgan Excalibur mouthpiece with a Harrison Rico Ligature and a La Voz size 3 reed
Soprano : Selmer Mark VI
Custom mouthpiece made by John Riley, Yanagisawa Ligature and a La Voz size 3
Baritone : Super Balanced
Otto Link 8 mouthpiece, with a plastic Bari reed. They cut really well especially with the big band.
photos by Tom Keller
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