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No Bad Ju Ju

No Bad Ju Ju may be an eight-piece band, but many observers focus their attention on one member in particular: singer Sabrina de Matteo.

And her voice is featured prominently on "No Bad Ju Ju," the band's new recording, as she sings lead on nine of the 10 tracks.

"I put the focus on her," says the band's guitarist/vocalist/co-founder/leader Mark Matteo. "She's got the look; she's got the sound."

Fans of the Pittsburgh-area band would agree, as the petite but dynamic singer can belt out a tune to match the power of the musicians who back her.

No Bad Ju Ju will celebrate the release of its first full-length studio CD with a release party on Thursday, March 9, at the Hard Rock Cafe at Station Square. Opening will be the Poogie Bell Band.

The disc arrives some four years into the career of the band, which Mark and Sabrina formed in late 2001, along with two other originals who still are aboard, keyboardist Fred Delu and sax player Curtis Johnson. Other current members are another saxophonist, Rick Matt; Tom Bellin, who's been playing bass since the band's early days; Steve McKnight, trumpet; and James Johnson, drums.

James actually will make his NBJJ debut at the release party. He replaces drummer Tom Compton, who is returning to his native England after playing his final show with the band last weekend at the Rhythm House in Bridgeville.

"We'll miss Tom," Mark says. "He's a very accomplished player."

His resume, in fact, includes stints with noted blues-rockers Johnny Winter, Alvin Lee and Savoy Brown. Fred also has had experience along those lines, touring with the late Roy Buchanan, a well-known name among guitar aficionados.

Mark, a veteran of such Pittsburgh bands as Gigolo and Modern Man, helped form No Bad Ju Ju as the house band at the Chapel of Blues on Pittsburgh's West End, focusing on the type of material you'd expect to hear at such a venue. Over the years, the group's repertoire has evolved beond that template.

"We're really coming into our niche," Mark says. "The stuff Sabrina and I are writing is more like R&B. We're trying to update the Tower of Power sound," he notes, referencing the funky San Francisco horn-based band.

The songwriting duo composed nine of the songs on the new CD. The other is "Son of a Preacher Man," a big hit for the late Dusty Springfield.

As for the originals, they offer plenty of variety.

"There are nice ballads on there, one just straight-ahead rocker, and three very strong dance and R&B tunes," Mark says. "And there's one kind of from the mold of Joss Stone and Susan Tedeschi."

The band cut the album with Crack the Sky alumnus Rick Witkowski at his Studio L in Weirton. The new recording follows a five-song EP - the tunes have been reworked for the current offering - and a live CD.

Meanwhile, No Bad Ju Ju continues to perform regularly for enthusiastic audiences.

"They jump out onto the dance floor the minute we start playing," Mark says. "And our original stuff goes over as well as our covers. People are singing along with our originals, which is a good sign."

And that means they can sing along with Sabrina on the new CD.

PHOTOS: I happened to shoot these at a No Bad Ju Ju performance in August 2003 outside of PNC Park. (I think one of my buddies took the one of the fan in the T-shirt.)


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