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All That Jazz

Cooling Says the Guitar Chose Her

May 19, 2000|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With a name that seems tailored to the genre, it's not surprising that guitarist Joyce Cooling is one of the emerging stars of smooth and cool jazz. The San Francisco-based performer, with her supple jazz guitar phrasing and elegant model's good looks, has become one of the rare female instrumentalists to break through a predominantly male field.

Despite her smooth jazz identification, however, a conversation with Cooling, who performs with her quartet May 27 in the free Playboy Jazz Festival at the Old Pasadena Summer Fest, generates a lot more commentary about Wayne Shorter, Joao Gilberto and Maurice Ravel than it does about Kenny G or Boney James. And even a brief exposure to her playing reveals roots that reach well beyond the commercial jazz arena.

"Well, you know," Cooling says, "you can take the girl out of jazz and Brazil, but you can't take jazz and Brazil out of the girl. It's in there forever and ever. It's in my bone marrow. It's the stuff that rocked my world."

Perhaps so, but it has been smooth jazz that has generated her current visibility. After working around the Bay Area for more than a decade, trying various expressive forms, from straight-ahead to Brazilian, Cooling--in association with keyboardist-partner Jay Wagner--finally broke through in 1997 with the album "Playing It Cool" and the single "South of Market."

Both album and single hit No. 1 on the Gavin and Radio & Records smooth jazz charts, and Cooling was named best new smooth jazz talent in the JAZZIZ Readers' Poll. Last week, her latest album, "Keeping Cool," was comfortably situated at No. 7 on the Gavin smooth jazz chart, and her single, "Before Dawn," was No. 12 on R&R's NAC/smooth jazz chart. "Callie," from the same album, had previously been an R&R No. 1 NAC/smooth jazz single.

She confesses, however, that "if left to my own druthers, just me in my quiet moments, not thinking about being commercial, harmony is what interests me--those beautifully clustery chords that I love to play, the sort of thing you hear in Antonio Carlos Jobim and Ivan Lins."

Equally important, Cooling continues to have an omnivorous taste in music--a breadth of interests that trace back to the wide range of music she heard while growing up in a large family in New York City. Initially, in fact, she considered becoming a percussionist, a decision that changed instantly when she heard Wes Montgomery's solo on "If You Could See Me Now."

"From that point," she says, "it was as if the guitar had chosen me."

Beyond Montgomery, however, the artists who, according to Cooling, "rocked my world," are far ranging.

"I think it first happened with Donald Fagen," Cooling continues, "the 'Nightfly' CD. And Elis Regina's 'Essa Mulher' and the album she made with Jobim, 'Elis and Tom.' Those are among the CDs I'd pick for my desert island.

"And I remember the first time I heard Wayne Shorter's 'Speak No Evil' and 'Pinocchio.' Those are things that rocked my world so hard that they are there forever. But I like other things, too. That James Brown compilation 'Star Time' with 'Funky Good Time' and that 12/8 rhythm thing that he does. The Ewe music from Ghana, funky good time stuff, and North Indian vocal music. I think it's because my moods are so varied, and I need music from a lot of different sources--from grunge to qawwali--to express them all."

So why, then, does Cooling's list of world rockers not include any of her smooth jazz contemporaries?

"Oh, I love a lot of those guys," she says, "especially Bob James and Lee Ritenour, who both had a big influence on me."

And it's not surprising that Cooling's immediate references were to performers with solid, across-the-board musical credentials. Like her, they are players who come to the commercial area of music with a multiplicity of skills.

"What I've learned from them," she says, "is that if you come from a rich musical background, you can flesh out commercial things in a cool, musical way. Unfortunately, the word 'commercial' is such a dirty word these days, but guys like Bob and Lee haven't sold out a speck. You listen to the way Lee stretches out those long, lean lines, and the way Bob puts a chart together, and you know they bring all their musical abilities to bear on what they're doing.

"I like to think," Cooling says, "that I'm approaching the music in the same way, and that the results I get have the same sort of musical integrity."

* The Joyce Cooling Quartet at Playboy Jazz in Central Park at Earthlink's Old Pasadena Summer Fest. May 27. (The entire fest runs over Memorial Day weekend, May 27-29.) Central Park, Pasadena, on Fair Oaks Avenue, just south of Colorado Boulevard. Playboy Jazz information: (310) 449-4070.

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