Smooth Artist Interviews

Joyce Cooling
Joyce Cooling
Joyce Cooling
Joyce Cooling
Joyce Cooling
Joyce Cooling
Joyce Cooling
Joyce Cooling

This Girl's Got To Play," your fifth CD release, is truly an outstanding project, and the first single, "Expression," is sailing up the Smooth Jazz charts. How would you describe the process that brought this new album (on your new label, Narada) into being?

I had been feeling musically restless for a couple of years before the release of "This Girl's Got To Play" and I wanted to try different things. We stretched ourselves in some new directions on this one, more so than on our previous releases. For instance, there are more vocal songs on "This Girl's Got To Play". I have always loved writing lyrics and this gave us a chance to do that. It's also incredibly fun to sing. It's a different kind of expression than playing guitar and I love them both.

Also, our previous CD was released on 9/11 and its impact was so far reaching that we almost got out of the music business altogether. We'll talk more about this later in this interview, but after coming full circle, meaning, after coming close to abandoning music as a career and then returning back home to realize that playing music is what I just have to do, gave me a strength, a conviction and a personal freedom that I really hadn't experienced before. The song "Expression" is just a musical, well, expression of that.

When we first recorded "Expression", there was a short lyric at the end vamp of the tune that didn't actually make it on to the CD. It'll probably pop up somewhere - maybe overseas, maybe on the internet - who knows? It talks very simply about just doing your thing, whatever that may be. Don't wait, just do it now, full force, do it like no one's there.

What aspect or aspects of the new album do you find the most satisfying to you personally?

It's kind of like what we were just talking about. I relish the freedom and the spirit that I had when I was making this CD. I definitely plan on continuing with this kind of energy, building it more and more with each release and with each performance. It tastes good to be free and I want a steady diet of it. I like mixing up styles of music. My record collection is huge and varies widely. I want to incorporate all of the sounds and feelings I love into my music. I want to break down some musical boxes and categories and cross pollinate sounds and grooves and ideas.

I know this is sometimes hard to answer, but, what the hey? Do you have a favorite song on the new album, one that is of special significance to you?

That's easy. No More Blues" is my personal favorite track on the CD. It's a vocal tune and it flowed for us. It was easy to record because it just fell into place. It's not what you would call a straight ahead jazz tune per se, but it definitely draws on my jazz roots. The harmony is more sophisticated in this song and harmony has always been one of my true loves in music. I get restless with all songs in one key that don't modulate to fresh places. It's nice to mix it up.

Also, the lyric in "No More Blues" reflects the spirit of the CD as well. It talks about coming to a personal crossroads and needing to change up - change what you are doing, change your approach, change whatever. Sometimes the people that know you the best and that you love the deepest, are the least willing to let you morph into your new thing - to shed your old skin. I guess it's partly because they've known you so long the other way. You want to bring everybody along on the journey with you, but if they're not able to go for some reason, it hurts, but you've got to keep moving.

One part of the lyric says, "Come with me, life's brighter now, I hope you can go... If you don't agree, I'll be in Mexico."

In case "Green Impala" wasn't the answer to my last question, what's the story behind this African fantasy, or an automotive tale?

Automotive tale. My first car was a big ol' boat of a vehicle. It was a green Chevy Impala. I grew up on the East Coast in New Jersey and New York and my first trip cross country was in a friend's car. The first time I drove my own car across the country (my second trip out west) was in my Green Impala. We basically lived in that car so it has some stories to tell. This is a family show so I dare not elaborate. Once I reached San Francisco, I drove the car down south through Mexico and Baja. Again, more wild tales from the edge.

You have become one of the true stars of Smooth Jazz, with a distinctive guitar sound and style that clearly say, "This is Joyce Cooling playing." With a myriad of musical influences in your life, was there one song or one performance or one musician that stands out to you as singularly influential in helping inspire you to arrive at that unique "Joyce Cooling" sound?

It's really hard for me to pinpoint one musical influence because I think that it's perhaps my eclecticism that adds to my voice. I love mixing a bit of everything into a sonic soup. I like to cook like that - I'm happiest when I can live like that. I love it when there is no label for something because it's very nature defies being labeled - a bit of this, a bit of that.

After saying that, I can certainly remember some "light bulb" musical experiences in my life where the switch flipped on and rocked my creative world.

It started out in Manhattan in the jazz clubs. I was not officially playing yet but was addicted to listening and going to hear live music. I was underage and had no money, but several very hip club owners and bartenders let me hang outside the door or on the steps to listen. They saw my passion and didn't have the heart to turn me away thank goodness. I was constantly on the steps of the Village Vanguard and the Village Gate or outside Sweet Basil's. Sometimes they would let me in to sit in the back during the last set. I heard everyone from Bill Evans, Cedar Walton and Jim Hall to Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson. It was quite an education.

Another "tear down the walls" experience happened before I had really decided what instrument I wanted to play. I was visiting a friend on the UC Berkeley campus. As I was walking to meet her, this amazing music that I had never heard before was wafting out of an open classroom window. It was like in the cartoons where a character is seduced by an aroma or something and the aroma turns into a beckoning, cloud-like finger and the cartoon character floats into the air following it. It was JUST LIKE THAT. I was mesmerized and ended up spending the hour listening in the hallway outside the classroom. I totally spaced on meeting my friend.

It turned out to be an African music class - specifically, Ewe music from Ghana taught by master drummer, C.K. Ladzekpo. I went back day after day, each time getting closer and closer until I was invited into the class by the teacher. (I was not enrolled as a student). I stayed unofficially in the class for a couple of years playing percussion and drums and learning how these beautiful polyrhythmic parts fit together to make incredible grooves.

I was also crazy about jazz chords and harmony so I was simultaneously living in the jazz clubs and listening to music. One afternoon I was home listening to a Wes Montgomery record while I was doing the dishes. It was the "Small Group Recordings" album and Wes was playing the jazz standard, "If You Could See Me Now". Wes played the melody and then went into his solo over the verse. When he got to the bridge of his solo he played the most beautiful, simple melodic phrase I had ever heard. I was knocked out. Off come the big, yellow, rubber gloves and I picked up my roommate's guitar and learned the lick and then went on to learn the rest of the solo off of the record. I knew that it was guitar from then on.

I remember a time when I was programming the Smooth Jazz station in Monterey, CA that I thought, after processing the news of a horrible airliner crash, that what I did was inconsequential in the overall cosmic scheme of things. Then it suddenly hit me (I can recall the exact moment.) that what I did actually helped people cope with and heal from the angst and suffering that seem so pervasive in this world. I read somewhere that you and your partner, Jay Wagner, actually considered leaving the music business shortly after 9/11. What was your thinking at that time, and what, thank God, finally caused you to re-commit to your craft?

The title of my new CD, "This Girl's Got To Play", really started evolving from the day our previous CD was released, which was the infamous 9/11. Our last CD, "Third Wish" hit the stores about a half hour or so before the planes went through the World Trade Center. I basically forgot all about the CD and to be honest with you, I really didn't care much about the new release or about music in general. I was just glued to the TV like everybody else frantically wondering if my family was safe.

I definitely took a second, third and fourth look at what I was doing for a living. As I was watching rescue workers, paramedics, fire men and women saving lives, I felt like a little, pink, poofy ball of spun sugar - like cotton candy or something just as insubstantial. Playing guitar just didn't seem meaningful. This whole feeling wound up becoming a sort of flat period for Jay and me and we talked seriously about getting out of the music business altogether.

After several months of this and after a lot of long talks and sleepless nights, I finally said to Jay, "Hey, I don't know about you, but this girl's got to play!"

The other thing that I came to realize is that yes, music and the arts are pretty useless at the time of impact of a disaster. At the onset of trauma people need emergency help. Where music becomes essential is during the healing process. Music and the arts become integral in mending the holes in people's souls and healing the tears in their hearts from grief, sorrow and trauma. It also becomes instrumental in providing relief by uplifting people. Music can be pure joy. This is where music comes to the rescue and if I can be a little, tiny part of that, well, that's why I'm here. One more curious thing about 9/11... Jay and I were back east with my family and we were on the same exact flight from Newark to San Francisco on 9/10. It was the same plane and flight that crashed in Pennsylvania the following day. We have our travel agent to thank. She said that we should fly back Monday because there were more seats available!

If you had actually taken that other road and gotten out of the music business after 9/11, what do you think you'd be doing today?

I really don't know quite what I would do. I have no other job skills - like, I can't type and God help the person that hires me to sit at a desk and crunch numbers! I have utmost respect for those talents but sadly I don't possess them.

Jay and I did talk a bit about opening the hip-est cafe in the city of San Francisco. It would be something of a community arts center where musicians could play intimate acoustic sets and sell their CDs, artists could display and sell their paintings and photography, etc. We talked about having poetry and comedy nights as well. It would be a place where artists could do their thing and not have any pressure to be commercial. None of that bit about hiring bands to keep 'em dancing and keep 'em drinking. Real art.

The cafe would also have an amazing sound system to play CDs of great music of all kinds from all over the world. It would also provide a soulful neighborhood place to just grab a cup of coffee. Who knows? Maybe we'll do something like this in the future anyway. It's important to me to help keep real, artistic expression flourishing. Otherwise we might all end up prisoners of commercial product - a problem that is most definitely looming over our heads.

In stepping away from your music and your guitar from time to time, what other sorts of things inspire and renew you?

I love San Francisco, and I get all kinds of inspiration from just trekking through the neighborhoods. I love to just walk miles and miles in this city. It's never boring and is full of all sorts of truly amazing people and things. The neighborhoods are so distinctive that walking from one to another can be like traveling through other countries.

I also have a love affair with nature and growing things. I recently moved to a living space that actually has a little back yard. Since I have always lived in apartment buildings, it's the first time I have ever had an outdoor place with dirt to play in. In my zealousness, I've over planted and stuffed it with all kinds of flowers and herbs and fruit trees. It's my beautiful haven.

Gardening is also therapeutic for me. While we were recording "This Girl's Got To Play" I remember planting several lemon and lime trees at 4:00 in the morning when I was frustrated with a song or a guitar part that I couldn't get right. Go figure.

Another love of mine is cooking. It's so cool to use things right out of the garden to cook with. I like to cook like jazz - meaning, see what's in the icebox and see what's ready in the garden and improvise. A little of this and that and create as you go along. It's a relaxing, creative thing for me.

You've been a part of the San Francisco music community for a number of years now. Do you find your life there to be pretty much self-contained, or do you feel the need to travel to other cities...other than when touring...for things you can't find in the Bay Area?

I love this city with a passion. I love living in San Francisco and will always have a home here and in Manhattan if I can swing it. In terms of traveling, yes, I totally get off on immersing myself in other cities and cultures.

If for some reason I couldn't travel, then I could easily be satisfied with the world of San Francisco and the colorful world inside my head. I am never bored when left to my own devices!

"Frazier" or "Friends"?

To be honest with you...neither. I especially can't seem to get through an episode of "Friends". I tried watching it and couldn't make it through 10 minutes. I don't get it. I guess it's just not my cup of tea.

if you were to personally design a "Smooth Jazz" station from a purely artistic standpoint (ratings and revenue be-damned), could you name five songs...other than your own...that you would absolutely include in the playlist?

I'd like to take this one a step further and say that if I were to personally design a radio station, I would severely loosen the grip on the format reins. It would be "jazz" or "jazzy" but I'd drop all of the music that got on the airwaves simply because of slick marketing and would add the "real deal" tracks with musical integrity. said from a purely artistic standpoint, right?

I think our audience is intelligent and hip and that they would like some more depth and variety in their music. Sort of like..."build the ball field and they will come". Well, play the great music and they will listen.

One thing I wouldn't play would be cover tunes unless the cover version was very creatively different from the original. I would leave the obvious pop and Motown oldies to an Oldies station that is devoted to that sort of thing. It might be nice to pull out some more obscure old tracks from those genres, but I would hope that people would look to jazz for something fresh. I know I do!

If you were magically allowed to spend an hour with any person who's ever lived, who would that be?

My Grandmother. She died before I was born.