Jessi Teich – Live and Unwrapped EP (2013)

Philadelphia-based Berklee graduate Jessi Teich is, in many ways, unlike any of the famous singers who have so clearly impacted her.

You hear a bit of Ella Fitzgerald, and a smattering of Etta James. She possesses the attitude of Amy Winehouse, but without the baggage. There’s the dark mystery of Sade, but with more swing. You’ll even detect a whisper of Alicia Keys’ next-gen modernity. Yet this new EP, recorded at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, never feels derivative – so complete is Teich’s mastery of their styles, and passion for the performance.

In keeping with her bubbling gumbo of influences, Live and Unwrapped draws upon a stirring variety of source material – from R&B and soul, to originals, even a funked-up Christmas tune. Each is given its own twist. A case in point: “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” originally co-written by Ashford and Simpson. The tune opens with a contemplative groove courtesy of guitarist Dai Miyazaki before Teich’s band catches a greasy little groove. It provides the perfect platform for Teich, who wails and coos with a sexy intelligence over the John Scofield arrangement. Miyazaki then returns for a scalding turn, before Teich finishes things with a sassy attitude – sounding something like a cross between the coquettish purr of Fitzgerald and the tough cadence of James.

“Never Again,” an original, follows – and, with its early rhythm showcase for bassist John Fraticelli and drummer Khary Shaheed, proves to be as layered and complex as the previous song was direct and sensual. Teich, scatting over a series of flinty asides from keyboardist Luke O’Reilly, again moves with a canny ease between jazz, blues and something closer to the carnal dangers of Winehouse’s R&B-soaked sides. O’Reilly switches to electric piano and then offers a lengthy, and deeply soulful, solo. Teich settles into a circular reading of the title, and it quickly becomes something like a second soloist as she riffs on “never, never again.”

Teich opens “Me and Your Man,” another of her compositions, settles into a vocal rhythm that finds a home somewhere between vocalese and hip hop, very reminiscent of Keys. Trombonist Ernest Stuart, who helped with arrangements on both this track and the subsequent “I Get Lonely,” then adds a squalling counterpoint. It’s easily the toughest, most confrontational track on Live and Unwrapped.

The live portion of the EP concludes with “I Get Lonely,” a Janet Jackson tune that returns the project to a more jazz-focused sense of swing. Teich’s merlot-dark vocal, and her cunning ability to meld styles, completely transform this pop tune – even before Stuart returns for a perfectly conceived turn on the bone. Together with Shaheed’s tumbling rhythm accents, the stage is set for a soaring finale, and Teich delivers. She concludes a more confidential tone before slipping into a thrilling scat, pushing everyone to find new places within this familiar theme.

“The Little Drummer Boy,” a bonus studio track, becomes a similarly transformative experience. Teich is joined here by a two-piece backing group featuring Nicholas Krolack on bass, and drummer John Morgan Kimoch, who combine to add a thrumming rhythm not unlike a New Orleans second line. This simultaneously gives Teich plenty of room to growl, yowl and groove – since there’s no other soloist – even as it adds a fresh new sense of verve to an age-old Yuletide favorite.

Taken together, these tracks make for a terrific introductory sampler as Teich prepares to record a new full-length project. She is traveling to Paris in early 2013 to continue sessions at the Studio du Meudon that have already produced four songs alongside the Thierry Maillard Trio and Laurent Derache.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.