WWBW features Conn-Selmer Artist Jessy J
Jessy J burst onto the contemporary jazz scene in 2008, blending her love for Latin rhythms and jazz on her chart-topping, award-winning debut album Tequila Moon. Jessy earned the Radio & Records’ ‘Debut Artist of The Year’ Award and Contemporary Jazz ‘Song of the Year’ by both R&R and Billboard for the title track, which held the #1 spot on the chart for eight weeks.
WWBW: Your latest release, Second Chances — I bet the title resonates with a lot of people.
JJ: A lot of people have said that they find it inspirational because everyone has had mistakes in their lives, and second chances represent the opportunity to retry something that you didn't do your best the first time.
WWBW: So you very much intended to have a spirit of redemption, reclaimed possibility to inform the mood of the whole recording?
JJ: Of course. I love how you phrased it. Yes, it's all about the next day, every day being new with new opportunity.
WWBW: I'm constantly amazed at the renewed opportunities that life tends to give me, anyway.
JJ: As a musician there are so many instances of that. And in our personal lives, in relationships, it could be in a song, in a performance. There's so many ways to put it into perspective.
WWBW: So you were raised in California?
JJ: Yes, in Hemet, California. I love the beach. I'm a Southern California girl 100%.
WWBW: When did you first start to incorporate Latin harmony and rhythm in your compositions? Has it been part of your sound from the beginning when you started to define your own sound?
JJ: It was a big deal for me when Ricky Martin became the first Latin pop singer to crossover into American music. I'm sure there were other pop artists too, like Ritchie Valens who sang “La Bamba” and other things like that, but to me Ricky Martin and Shakira really represented people that I could see. I was a fan of his music in Spanish and then when “La Vida Loca” became a big English hit I kept thinking why can't I do this with instrumental music? So it made sense for me to do Latin jazz with a pop influence in Spanish and in English and Portuguese. And now, you know, it's been all over the world. The music is so universal because it's notes instead of words. People can really understand it in any language.
WWBW: A lot of artists create new sounds by fusing two existing genres and I think you've done that really successfully with smooth jazz with dramatic Latin jazz underpinnings.
JJ: Thank you.
WWBW: What about that term, smooth jazz? Do you love it? Do you hate it? Is there a better way to define that music or the direction that it's going?
JJ: It doesn't bother me as long as people listen to the music. That's my biggest concern, for people to always connect to the music. I know that there have been a lot of different terms used: contemporary jazz, Latin jazz, pop jazz, smooth jazz, and for me it's just a word. It doesn't mean that the music is a certain way because I've always considered myself to be a musician. So I’m not necessarily a classical musician or a jazz musician. I'm just a musician. I play all different styles of music. So if people want to call it smooth jazz I'm okay with that.
WWBW: Describe when you first got started; before you had really committed and said "I'm going to be a musician", what was your early practice regimen like?
JJ: I started playing the piano when I was four and I enjoyed it. No one ever made me practice. This is something that I wanted to do. So I would practice on my own as a little girl. I would enjoy singing the words to the songs while I was playing it so that was something that was different.
Then when I was nine years old I started the saxophone in elementary band and that was fun because I could already read the music, so it was easy for me. I didn't have to practice all the time to learn the notes. I knew the notes. I just had to learn the fingerings and I felt like I was just breezing by everything. That's when it became really fun for me because one of my friends played the flute. My sister played the clarinet. We would switch instruments and I was playing the flute, learning the clarinet and the sax all at the same time. I'd already been playing the piano and the guitar. So I felt like it was really fun that I was able to play all these different instruments. But I got really curious about it probably in sixth grade. That's when I started doing a lot of the honor bands, the Southern California State Honor Band.
WWBW: It sounds like you had a really vigorous school music program.
JJ: Hemet has an excellent music program. It's been known for jazz for a long time, since the '70s. Everyone there, from the music directors to the parents in the community, they support the music program and there's a lot of places to perform. So it was really popular to be in band at that time.
WWBW: After you made the decision, “Okay, I'm a musician,” did you really ramp up your practice schedule at that point?
JJ: I did. For me practicing was always a lifestyle, so it was part of my daily routine. I had a lot of piano competitions as well as saxophone competitions. So right around sixth grade—I was about 12 years old. I would practice the piano for an hour and a half every day and then the same with the saxophone, an hour to an hour and a half every day after school. And it just continued throughout all of junior high, all of high school. Then in college I was able to practice more. I had more time available. I just always have enjoyed playing. To me it never felt like a job. It just felt like something fun to do.
WWBW: At this point your chops are honed. Your repertoire is defined. Your recording, touring schedule is established. All the puzzle pieces are in place. What kind of a practice schedule do you keep currently?
JJ: Currently, right now, this month, in January I have some downtime. It depends, like you said, on the touring and traveling and recording schedule. At this moment I’m practicing piano in the morning. I do a lot of finger exercises on keyboards because it strengthens my fingers and helps my saxophone as well. I really maintain my technique on the piano and then I practice my saxophone in the evening. So I try to break it up during the day so I have a morning practice session and an evening practice session.
WWBW: What about composing? Do you typically compose at the piano or saxophone?
JJ: Piano. And it’s interesting because a lot of times when I am composing it’s more of a song in my head so I sing it into a recording device and then later I transcribe it.
WWBW: So those vocal melodies turn into saxophone melodies eventually?
JJ: Yes, and sometimes they stay vocal. It depends. Like “Second Chances” has vocals in it. Some of the songs have a background vocal part. Sometimes it’s a soprano saxophone part. Sometimes it’s another instrument, so it really just depends on the song.
WWBW: How did you come to be a Selmer endorser?
JJ: Actually I got my Selmer deal before I was an artist. I was a backing musician for Michael Bolton. I was on tour and my saxophone got smashed in the tour bus. There was a bus full of gear and it had to drive, I think it was Greece to Italy. Something fell on my saxophone case and my saxophone bell was totaled. So I called Selmer and I explained to them, “I play your saxophones. I’m a touring musician, I need another horn. Is there anything you can do?” And that’s when the relationship began.
WWBW: Wow. Necessity becomes the mother of invention.
JJ: Yes, and then after that, after I signed with Selmer a lot of other companies started approaching me to try their instruments when all I’ve ever played was Selmer. It’s my favorite instrument, so of course I didn’t switch.
WWBW: That worked out great for you. So tell us about Stan Getz – not the saxophonist Stan Getz, but the saxophone Stan Getz.
JJ: (Laughs) It’s a classic, vintage Mark VI. It’s in mint condition. It’s a beautiful horn. I picked it up in 2008. I don’t even take it on the road. I keep it at home and I use it in recording sessions. It’s the same year—I find it to be—the Stan Getz horn, it’s from the ‘60s and it has that sound that he could get on his saxophone, which is very—it has a lot of air in it. It’s floaty. It’s mature. It’s deep. It just reminds me of him.
JJ: That’s correct.
WWBW: Are they sought-out vintage Otto Link pieces, or are they ones that are in current production?
JJ: They’re just the stock mouthpieces. I got lucky. I just tried four or five of each before I found the one that I really like.
WWBW: There are a lot of super high-end mouthpiece manufacturers that are currently on the market. How did you come to select the relatively inexpensive Otto Link as your preferred tenor mouthpiece?
JJ: Well, I love John Coltrane and John Coltrane played an Otto Link mouthpiece with a Selmer ligature, so that’s exactly what I wanted to play.
WWBW: I don’t think you need to say much more than that [laughter]. You prefer a Morgan Excalibur mouthpiece for alto though. Is that still current?
JJ: That’s current. I still have my Morgan Excalibur.
WWBW: Is there something the Morgan gives you that maybe the equivalent Otto Link might not?
JJ: I played a Meyer 5M for a long time on my alto and that was a really nice crossover piece for the studio. I thought I could play any style of music on it. For my solo career I chose the Morgan Excalibur because it cuts a little bit more for live shows and I felt it had an edgier sound than the Meyer.
WWBW: I also read an account somewhere of a Homerian quest for a satisfying soprano mouthpiece. It took some looking around for you to find a soprano mouthpiece that really suited you?
JJ: Yes. The soprano’s always been one of those instruments to me. It’s like the clarinet. It’s a hard instrument to play in tune in all the ranges. So it’s been a constant battle for me with the mouthpieces. I had a Yanagisawa for a long time. Then finally [John Riley] made me a custom mouthpiece, which I love because you can still play the middle of the instrument the way you would play the bottom of the instrument. So for me it’s much easier to play and it sounds nice in tune. I really worked a lot with him on the mouthpiece getting it just right. So I had a custom mouthpiece for that.
WWBW: So you mentioned clarinet. Is there any clarinet or flute playing in your world currently? Or how about the EWI? Do you do any MIDI driver?
JJ: No EWI. I do play the flute and the clarinet. I play more flute than clarinet.
WWBW: I play with sax players who play clarinet and they’re all driven slowly mad if they play too much clarinet.
JJ: [laughs] It’s true. It’s like speaking two different languages at the same time.
WWBW: I’m going to set you up with a little joke here, but there’s a point to it, so bear with me. How many sax players does it take to screw in a light bulb?
JJ: I don’t know.
WWBW: It only takes one, but they have to use about six or seven different bulbs to make sure they’ve got one that works right.
WWBW: So tell us about your reed preferences, like brand, strength, and maybe a word about Plasticcover reeds?
JJ: I use them on my tenor sax, strength two Rico Plasticover. The reason I switched, I was touring a lot and I felt that the cane reeds were inconsistent, depending on the climate. So from Chicago to Florida to New York, the Plasticover reed was the same in every climate. To me, that’s what I really strive for, is consistency. So I switched to Plasticover and then haven’t switched back.
WWBW: Probably some purists bristle at the artificial reed idea. I don’t play reeds, but I imagine that it’s probably gotten a lot better in recent years. Have you been experimenting with the composite reeds over the years?
JJ: I have. Actually, I remember going to the clinics that Pete Christlieb gave. He was the first one that was using synthetic reeds. I heard about it through him, in college. I thought it interesting that he was such a fan of synthetic reeds. I love his sound and it doesn’t sound like synthetic reeds to me. Then when I was touring and I was turned on to the Plasticover reeds, I originally thought, "will it sound like a cane reed?" But it does sound like a cane reed. So I don’t have any issues using it. I go back and forth quite a bit on my alto, going between different types of reeds. But I prefer cane on the alto just because it speaks a little bit better to me with my setup.
WWBW: We’ve covered the gear and the music, so let’s head to the marketing. You’re a beautiful young woman, if you don’t mind my saying so, and I’m guessing there’s a combined advantage and a disadvantage to that. Do you have any thoughts on that?
JJ: There is definitely an advantage because, you know, people are people, so we see something and if we like it, it draws our attention. But it has not been a disadvantage. I think it can be a disadvantage if you use it the wrong way, but for me, I’ve always just been myself and I’ve just embraced who I am as a Latina, as a female, as a young jazz artist. I think people can relate to it because they see that I’m honestly trying my best and being genuine.
WWBW: Is there anything else you’d like the readers of Woodwind & Brasswind catalog and visitors to our website to know about you, your music, or your recording and touring plans?
JJ: I’m really excited about this new year, 2014. I think it’s going to be a lot of opportunities for travel, recording, more performing. I’m already working on my next album. It’ll be, hopefully, out the end of this year.