Much like Lewis Carroll's beloved Alice who followed a nattily attired talking rabbit down a hole I was equally intrigued as I recently spent an all too short hour speaking with American contemporary Jazz guitarist Joyce Cooling. The San Francisco Bay area composer/musician readily admits that having a conversation with her can be both an adventure and elusive. At one point during our conversation she asks, "Have you noticed with me that you can never get a straight answer? Have you noticed that?"
With most artists you can ask what kind of guitar or drums they play and you get a very technical answer and why they prefer certain types of pickups and a certain style of guitar. With Cooling she uses it as an opportunity to share with you a romantic piece of family lore. She strums the guitar next to her and tells me, "This right here is what I call my beach guitar. It is the very first guitar that I confiscated (from her family)," she confides in me. "It was supposed to be a new family guitar and when I left (home) it was like, "I'll be taking this (with me) thank you," she says laughing.
Cooling then plunges headlong into the history of the guitar. "My uncle, my mom's brother was a Jazz guitarist. He played with Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald. He was the real deal! He did the Carson show (in the house band) when it was in New York City. (Prior to Carson) he did the Jack Paar show. He retired when the Carson show moved to Los Angeles," she says. By now I am thinking to myself that is all very nice Joyce but what does this have to do with my question or the guitar you were strumming a few minutes ago?
Whether Cooling realizes it or not she is a very good storyteller and has learned that you must slowly work up to the heart of the adventure. She relates to me how her uncle opened a music store in New York City. "He would handpick every single guitar whether it was going to sell for thirty dollars, three hundred dollars or three thousand dollars. He would play each guitar. He would come home with these very inexpensive guitars and we got one of the thirty dollar guitars," she says. The guitar sitting beside her is the one that came from her uncle's store when Cooling was a little girl. "I love this thing. As a matter of fact I played this on the very last song "One Again" from the new CD Revolving Door," Cooling says. The song "One Again" was inspired by the romance between her aunt and uncle. "I decided to play this guitar that he gave us. It is still my favorite soul guitar to this day," she says. Almost as an after thought she tells me that she has twenty other guitars.
The title of Cooling's album Revolving Door originates with the desire of Cooling and her partner Jay Wagner to create a more keen awareness of the issues faced by families who have a loved one coping with a mental illness. The subject rests close to Cooling's own heart as her brother tries to cope with schizophrenia. A portion of Wagner and Cooling's proceeds from all retail and online sales of the album are being donated to the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI). The image of a revolving door becomes an analogy for people who find they are spinning into situations that they cannot control such as mental illness. On another level Cooling views the analogy being extended to things such as a bad day at the office or a relationship that has gone awry.
Cooling says that because of the media and entertainment industry's portrayal of any type of mental illness as being more closely linked to sociopaths a stigma has arisen within society. She wants to dispel those myths and lend a voice to those in society who have remained quiet. "When you get shame involved people hide it and (it results in) a lack of research," says Cooling.
It is through providing a voice for those who often are not heard that and Cooling and Wagner hope to attract more research dollars for mental illness. Coincidentally the day after my conversation with Cooling an article appeared in Canada's largest newspaper the Toronto Star indicating that of all the G8 countries Canada is the only one that has a negligible amount of dollars dedicated to the area of research for children who have a mental illness.
It has been well documented that Cooling's musical tastes are very eclectic. On the wall in her 'music room' are framed CD covers from artists as diverse as; John Coltrane, The Police, Wayne Shorter, Joni Mitchell, Wes Montgomery, Led Zeppelin, Dexter Gordon, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Bossa Nova legend Elis Regina. In response to my query as to whose music she was listening to on this day she peered inside her stereo and rhymed off the names of Ivan Lins and Indian singer Parween Sultana. Understanding the eclectic musical tastes of Cooling and partner Wagner is a key to appreciating why they have worked so effectively together for seventeen years as writers and musicians. When it comes to music Cooling will tell you that it is like they finish each other's phrases. "As corny as this sounds we are musical soul mates," she says. The diversity of music from which they pull their inspiration allows them to create richly textured compositions.
Cooling refers to Revolving Door as an earthy album. "It has salt and minerals," she says. The CD also gives us an opportunity once again to listen to her vocals. Cooling admits that the more she has evolved as an artist her vocals have surfaced more often. "As time passed there were more and more that I felt I wanted to say," she tells me. Cooling the composer could not put those thoughts across with a strictly instrumental tune so she started to develop the lyrical side of her writing. She poses the question, "How do you communicate that (the missive) behind "Little Sister" on this new CD (without the use of words)?" On the other hand with "Revolving Door" (the title track) how do you put that into a lyric? I had no way of doing it so it became an instrumental. It's more what bubbles up and needs to be said. Is it an instrumental thing or does it really require words? When it requires words it becomes a vocal tune."
Fans of Joyce Cooling should enjoy both the instrumental and vocal tracks from her new CD Revolving Door which will be released on September 9th.