Not that it’s a race or anything, but now that Jessy J is gracing us with her dynamic, high spirited, funky, soulful and playfully exotic California Christmas, Vol. 2, it will still take her many more holiday seasons to ever catch up to the smooth jazz Christmas saxophone kings Dave Koz (now with eight albums) and Kenny G (seven including compilations). Still, 2016’s California Christmas – which marked the first release on her indie label Changi Records- and this equally dazzling sequel are such imaginative, brilliantly played and soulful works that it might be fun to contemplate more of Jessy’s vibrant holiday cheer down the road.
For 2022, Vol. 2 is the holiday sax jam standard setter, a perfect multi-faceted holiday playlist all its own that takes us from the smoky and lyrical, string filled ballad “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” (featuring a gorgeous trad jazz piano solo by the always dazzling Jay Rowe) through the show-stopping, stripped down sax, flamenco guitar and percussion romp through “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” that adds snazzy Latin sizzle to the traditional ballet piece. Besides offering a unique mix of sacred and secular pieces, the real magic of this Cali Xmas is the stylistic diversity that bops from vibe to vibe like shimmering tinsel reflecting light down the length of a tree.
For starters, dig the gospel vocal excitement accompanying Jessy’s soaring sax on “Oh Holy Night” and at the heart of the blues-funk romp through “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” The ensemble playing and bluesy organ on the latter harkens back a few months to her stellar latest album Blue, which I happened to choose as a Top Ten Critic’s Choice for Jazziz magazine. Jessy’s dreamy, lyrical soprano guides a light funk twist on “Up on the Housetop,” while she, her monster ensemble and slammin’ guest guitarist Mark Lettieri of Snarky Puppy give a rockin’ shout out to the “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Also in the mix is a robust, bluesy, trad jazz swing through “What Child Is This,” a sweetly swaying “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” (with Jessy’s gorgeous, not heard often enough melodic flute) and some retro-cool fun to start a hopeful jam (appropriate for New Year’s Eve optimism) through “Auld Lang Syne.”
Aside from the already mentioned guests, Jessy’s holiday party includes stop-ins from longtime collaborators Paul Brown Jeff Lorber and Euge Groove; the foundational ensemble of Rowe, bassist Dave Anderson, drummer Trevor Somerville, guitarist Andy Abel and percussionist Richie Gajate Garcia; and contributions from Norman Jackson on keyboards, Frank Abraham on bass, Iajhi Hampden on drums, Kayta Matsuno and Ash Jenga on guitars. Guest vocalists include Mississippi soul singer Maurice Smith and the smooth vocals of Brandon Wattz.
For those new to the Jessy J experience, or who somehow didn’t hear the first volume, the title California Christmas isn’t just a clever reference to her adopted home stage. It’s more of a different holiday mindset. When most people think about Christmas, they visualize falling snow, a deep chill in the air and a cozy, roaring fireplace, but Jessy – who was born in Portland, OR and raised in Southern California – thinks about spending Christmas at the beach, enjoying the unique opportunity for some fun in the sun that many folks in the U.S. can only dream about. Her overall vision for California Christmas (and now Vol. 2) is to convey these upbeat, jazzy, bluesy and tropical vibes. For the saxophonist, one of the great joys of indie music making is the opportunity to step outside the confines of the urban jazz genre and spread the seasonal cheer in a multitude of styles from track to track with different lineups of her favorite musicians.
“For me and many people, Christmas songs bring us to a place of nostalgia, where we think of being a kid opening presents, having dinner with our families and creating wonderful memories,” says Jessy. “I grew up loving all the songs I recorded for California Christmas, Volumes 1 and 2 and I’m proud of the work we did to create these unique albums that my fans can enjoy year after year. All of the arrangements are original, offering a fresh perspective on songs we have known in other ways for so many years.”