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Jazz Review

Sweet Baby J'ai Offers Vocal Pyrotechnics

January 24, 2002|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's never any doubt who's in command when singer Sweet Baby J'ai is on stage. Sweeping magisterially from one side to the other, urging her musicians with body language and vocal exhortations, interacting with her listeners, she is a consummate entertainer, constantly seeking to make the most of every possible performing moment.

On Tuesday night at Catalina Bar & Grill, before a packed-house, enthusiastic crowd, Sweet Baby J'ai (the only name she uses) was in high gear from the first notes of her opening number--an offbeat rendering of Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud." The balance of the program, virtually all of it drawn from her new CD, "Evolution" (Sunset Music Group), continued at the same pace, driven by J'ai's seemingly inexhaustible supply of musical energy.

Equally important, she worked hard to bring a new perspective to virtually every tune. There was, for example, a quirky version of "Nature Boy," with atmospheric accompaniment from Sherman Ferguson's drumming, Carol Chaikin's flute playing and an unidentified participant's simulated bird whistles--unusual, but intriguing. The Ray Charles hit "Hit the Road, Jack" emerged in combination with "I Got Rhythm," and the Gershwins' "Summertime" was positioned within a rap about the glory days of Central Avenue.

A pair of originals--"Hypnotize," a hard-grooving blues, and "Evolution"--displayed J'ai's songwriting skills, and an all-join-in rendering of "Meet Me Wit' Your Black Drawers On"--a suggestive blues that has become her signature number--provided an appropriate climax to a pyrotechnic evening of music.

In addition to Chaikin and Ferguson, J'ai was ably supported by pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Trevor Ware and, sitting in for the final number, saxophonist Steve Carr and trombonist Kerry Loeschen.

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