February 2004

Sweet Baby J'ai Offers Vocal Pyrotechnics

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles Times


There's never any doubt who's in command when singer Sweet Baby J'ai is on stage.  Sweeping magisterically 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 Serman Ferguson's drumming, Carol Chaikin's flute playing and 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.  I Don't Want The Neighbors To Know” left thestanding audience with no doubt that this multi-talented performer is an important voice in jazz.