One would think that close to three years down the road, chronicling yet another personal story about 9/11 would be a bit redundant, yet it’s the only way to fully appreciate the crossroads Joyce Cooling found herself at while writing and recording her Narada Jazz debut This Girl’s Got To Play. A few days before the tragedy, the popular guitarist, in New York visiting relatives, hung out at the World Trade Center, bagel and coffee in hand. On September 10, she and Jay Wagner, her longtime keyboardist and musical partner, flew home from Newark to San Francisco on the same flight that a day later would be brought down in a Pennsylvania field. She was excited — her album Third Wish, was hitting the bins the next day.
“Then, it was as if nothing else really mattered,” she recalls. “First I panicked about where some of my family members might be, then I just sat like everyone dumbfounded as the impact of the day hit me. I forgot all about my CD coming out, it seemed so insignificant. Watching rescue workers going about their very essential jobs, my role in the world seemed like the fluff of society. Jay and I hit a major dry period, and at one point we seriously considered getting out of the music business. We thought it might be fun to open up a hip café in San Francisco, where artists and photographers could display their work, and bands could play.”
The title of her album came about from a line she uttered spontaneously after three months of this kind of talk. She turned to Wagner during a discussion and said, “I don’t know about you, but this girl’s got to play!” All at once, it hit her that if there was indeed a purpose to her existence after all, it was somehow connected to the deep love of music she senses runs in her marrow. She realized that, in a world where 9/11s can happen, artists may not have much to offer at the point of impact — but they become essential in the healing process.
“All of this was very freeing for me, and I came into the new project rejuvenated, with fervor and passion to spare,” she says. “When you come close to abandoning something you can’t imagine your life without, and then you come full circle, it’s like returning home, and it’s the right place to be.”
Not surprisingly with all the soul searching that went on, This Girl’s Got To Play! is the most personal of her four smooth jazz recordings, balancing in the pocket, hip and snappy radio-ready tunes like the opening cut “Expression” and “Green Impala” with deeper bluesy explorations (“Toast & Jam”) and the exotic, Middle Eastern tinged “Camelback,” named for a well known mountain in the Phoenix area. For Cooling, the lonesome desert vibe of this tune reflects the gray area in the mystery of dusk, a sort of journey through a no-man’s land she can fully relate to.
Cooling has always included a lead vocal or two on her albums, but here goes deeper into the singer/songwriter side of her artistry with a total of four. The playful title track finds her taking a bemused, sometimes tongue in cheek look back at high school and the world of day jobs, where she was always the odd girl out; music, it seems clear, was her only salvation, and this song reaffirms her wise choice in continuing. The other noteworthy vocal is “No More Blues,” whose lyrics speak of her personal crossroads and taking risks over a rootsy, organic acoustic jazz-blues vibe that’s perfectly in between the realms of smooth and straight ahead jazz; Jon Evans’ upright bass drives the laid back piece, which also features a thoughtful guitar solo between her declaration that she’s “through with my crying.”
Although some might view the title of the disc as an invitation for more women to take a stand in the male dominated genre, Cooling insists her overall theme of “whatever your passion is, just do it” should be genderless. “When I say the word ‘Play,’ I don’t just mean music, it’s whatever you do that drives you and makes you happy,” she says. “It’s about coming to those points in your life where decisions have to be made, and following your heart.”
While she’s always excited to learn that young women consider her success in smooth jazz an inspiration for their own creative endeavors, Cooling truly longs for a culture that wouldn’t put such a premium on image to sell a product.
“I might not have had this opportunity to play music for so many people if I wasn’t a woman, because the industry sees us as a novelty in some ways,” she says. “Companies sometimes see it as a marketing angle. But nothing could happen if I didn’t put the music first. I want people to close their eyes and feel me in that way. And if they are getting into the music, does my image matter? I’ve met a lot of women musicians who are good and should get a chance, not because they are attractive and female, but because their music is great. It’s a turn off to me to see an album cover with a dolled-up chick whose talent doesn’t measure up.
“The music must come first before anything,” she emphasizes. “On the other hand, if my being a woman intrigues people and they want to come check me out based on that, that’s wonderful. Whatever gets them out to hear the music. Once this girl starts playing, they’ll know I’m all about the music.”
GROOVIN’ FOR GROVER: Smooth jazz promoters are always coming up with clever ways to package a handful of beloved players on one value-packed ticket. Guitars & Saxes has been an institution over the past decade, and this year’s summer tour lineup features G&S vets Jeff Golub and Warren Hill with newcomers to the fold Marc Antoine and Euge Groove. A brand new package called Sax Pack is also hiting the festival circuit, with old faves Kim Waters, Jeff Kashiwa and Steve Cole (who did G&S last year). The spring into summer Groovin’ for Grover tour allows participants Paul Taylor, Richard Elliot, Gerald Albright and Jeff Lorber a handful of solo spotlights, but after intermission, the four focus totally on soulful, blistering versions of classic, pre-smooth jazz era tunes that inspired a generation of saxmen.
Aside from being a celebration of the life and spirit of the late Grover Washington, Jr., the tour is designed to help raise awareness of and funds for the legendary saxophonist’s Protect the Dream Foundation, which seeks to enrich children’s lives through music education. By providing funding and public and nonprofit institutions devoted to music education, the 5013c charity keeps alive Grover’s hopes as founder that young people’s lives will be uplifted through music.
The show in early April in the ballroom at the St. Regis Resort & Spa in Dana Point, California was a powerful display of the spontaneous energy that can happen when musicians pay tribute to an influential master. Egos were set aside and the spirit of Washington was allowed to come in and drive the show. Elliot and Taylor are strong players and consummate performers, but the underrated Albright was a cut above, especially wailing on the increasingly improvisational elements of the smooth funky workout tune “Winelight.” Elliot recognized Albright’s genius in a playful way, at one point bowing to him after the two engaged in a healthy competitive solo section exchange during “Black Frost.”
Groovin’ For Grover is one of the most unique sax packages smooth jazz has ever offered, and shouldn’t be missed. Summer dates include stops in Oakville, CA, Kettering, OH, Saratoga, CA and at the Hollywood Bowl’s JVC Jazz Festival on August 22.
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:
1) To Grover With Love (Q Records) – The excitement of the concert prompted me to dig out this magnificently fashioned, Jason Miles-produced 2001 all-star tribute disc, which features Albright doing “Winelight,” Elliot covering “Take Me There” and Taylor jamming with Peter White on “Come Morning.”
2) Eric Clapton, Me and Mr. Johnson (Warner Bros.)
3) Alan Hewitt Project, Noche De Pasion (215 Records)
4) Grady Nichols, Sophistication (Grady Nichols Music)
5) A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield (Warner Bros.)