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Interview by Joe Montague

Joyce Cooling Interview 2010 photo 1 page oneJoyce Cooling has long been considered to be one of the funkiest, smoothest and most creative guitarists and songwriters on the music scene and the Bay Area resident, along with Jay Wagner, the other half of the dynamic songwriting team, have struck gold again with the fabulous Global Cooling album. Global Cooling opens with an up-tempo “Grass Roots,” showcasing Cooling’s delicious guitar playing, as she bends a few notes, and featuring Buddy Rivera’s undeniable funky bass, Bill Ortiz’s sweet trumpet and Roberto Quintana on percussion.  

Over the years, Joyce Cooling has become a friend to this magazine and we continue to be attracted to the Cooling / Wagner arrangements, because of the imagination the duo demonstrate in the creation of songs such as “Cobra,” which fuses jazz with Indian percussion.

“I have always, always, always loved Indian music, the classical music, as well as the pop. I don’t know much about it. I am not a musicologist by any means, but I love those scales, those ragas (melodic moods used in Indian classical music). There was one in particular that I always loved and every time that I heard it, I would always run over to my guitar and try to play with it, improvise with it. That is the scale (the raga) that you hear in “Cobra.” I wanted to keep who we are; it is still a contemporary jazz CD, but I have always loved sounds from around the world, so in “Cobra,” we threw in a little sitar and tablas, and of course that exotic scale that I love. Jay came up with this really cool rhythm track that I love. We wrote a melody and I am still (trying to find) the words, because it is contemporary jazz, with the little slight sound of India in there. It is a little beam of light. Is it slam, dunk traditional Indian music? No, not at all.  It has that whole vibe to it.”

Cooling once described a previous album, Revolving Door as being earthy, with salt and minerals, and she describes the current album Global Cooling as, “It is not world music by any stretch, but you can put it on and you can take a trek around the globe. For example, we talked about the song “Cobra,” and the song “Red Rose,” is not a real, authentic Tango, but there are elements (in it), with some of the scales that we used and some of the percussion. Some things are borrowed from the groove of Tango, to make it feel like Tango. “Grass Roots,” is by no means a down the pike reggae tune, but we borrowed little vibes out of reggae, little slices of things. You are in the Caribbean with that. “Dolores In Pink,” is totally borrowed from Brazil. Celso Alberti who is from Brazil is all over that one. So now you are in South America, and then at the very end of the CD, we have a little Carnival thing that is totally out of Rio. Is it a traditional Carnival like piece? No. There is a backbeat in it. We borrowed from all over the place, so Global Cooling is kind of a little trek.   

Because she is a guitar virtuoso, it may surprise some of Cooling’s fans to learn that their heroine was first attracted to the use of percussion in music, many years ago. “It was a conscious decision to have (more percussion) on the (album) because I have always loved percussion. At one stage, early, early in my career, I thought that I wanted to be a percussionist. I got into the whole West African music from Ghanna. I wasn’t a professional musician yet. I was meeting a friend for lunch, who was a student from the Uof C Berkley and we met on campus.  There was a classroom window that was open and the most amazing grooves were coming out of it. Do you remember the old cartoons where someone puts a pie on a shelf to cool, and the aroma from the pie is wafting out and the cartoon character gets a whiff of this coming out of the window? The cartoon character starts to float towards the aroma and the scent turns into a beckoning finger, as the cartoon character follows it through the air. That is kind of how it was. It was mesmerizing and I fell into a trance almost. I stood outside the classroom and would just listen.  I found out that the class met twice each week, so I would come back twice each week. I wouldn’t miss it for love or money and I rearranged my work schedule. Then I got bolder and I crept into the back of the room and I was working out the rhythms on the side of my chair. Everyday I would get a little bolder and I would creep closer to the front of the class. Then the teacher said, ‘I know that you aren’t a student, but I can see that you love the music, come on,’ and he handed me an axatse, which is a gourd covered with a net of beads. You hit against your leg, with the leg and hand bouncing between each rhythm.”

Our conversation then takes a side trip, as Cooling educates me, concerning different types of percussion instruments. “There is a pecking order, you start with the axatse and then you graduate to the bell, then there is a little drum called the kidi. You can’t graduate to the kidi drum until you have really gotten how the axatse and the bell fit in with the rhythms. It’s not just playing the groove, it is a repetitive pattern. The axatse and the bell do not vary, they are static and someone may say, oh how boring, but it is not boring, trust me, because when you start tuning in to what the lead drummer is playing and what some of the other parts are playing, that will throw you. It will throw you right off of your part. The first step is you almost block everything out and just keep your part, then you can slowly let in your bell part and your kidi part. You can let them in with your mind and you play one with one hand and one with the other, to see how they integrate. By the time that you can play the bell and let in the whole drum part, which is part improv and part like a classical piece that is very sophisticated and polyrhythmic. That stuff will throw you off and you have to let it in slowly. Then once you have mastered that and you let in the most sophisticated part in the pecking order, you are ready to move to the next instrument, before you start the process all over again. I was just floored with it and I am nuts about it,” she says.   

Cooling lends her vocals to a few of the songs on Global Cooling, including the fun and forward looking “What Are We Waiting For?” and “Chit Chat,” a satirical comment on society, with words like, “Floyd hits the void – watches TV / Til he goes to bed / Jane rides the train – tabloids fill her brain / As she nods her head,” and then a verse whose lines were inspired by an conversation that Cooling overheard, “Talk at supper – gossip at work / who’s the bride – who’s the groom? / Chitter chat chatter – what does it matter / who broke up with whom?

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