Having had some unpleasant encounters with rock guitars lately and a blazing row with a “real” jazz fan — who was mortified by a deep house record of mine, which blasphemously included a Billie Holiday sample — I felt just in the mood for some smooth jazz guitar. Perversity is a curse. Actually, make that smooth jazz guitar — for with Joyce Cooling we are not talking Wes Montgomery or Phil Upchurch but the full, easy-listening, escalator-muzak experience that currently baffles critics and sells by the barrel-load. Third Wish is shamelessly smooth and so undemanding as to be almost servile. Obviously, in my current mood, I really like it.
I must admit that the genre fascinates me. What is it? It is not jazz — eschewing, as it does, improvisation and risk-taking. Some of it is AOR in slightly funkier guise. Steely Dan and Sting are becoming close associates. Some of it is instrumental ’80s soul for those who gave up when hip-hop and jack swing took over. And some of it is, I am afraid, Kenny G. In England it has a suburban, lower-middle class, 30-40 something audience — the people who used to buy Level 42 and Shakatak records. The movement’s landmark album was Grover Washington’s “Winelight” — that moment when jazz-funk became fusion. That paved the way for a sound that is unhip and unloved in a way no form with its basis in African-American music has ever managed to be. And yet it is getting more popular by the second.
Joyce Cooling is a case in point. A guitarist from the Bay Area, her early albums for Heads Up were homegrown, low budget affairs — the sort of discs that the band sells at the end of a gig (which would have been free and probably in a restaurant). Yet they took off, were endlessly played on the radio and sold enough to get GRP/Verve interested. She is now a star.
Not that you can tell. There are no heroics and no showcasing — just a melodic, slightly saccharine, set of instrumentals with the odd vocal here and there. The arrangements are sparse,the drum patterns too predictable and the bass could do with some extra tonnage but — and this is crucial — Ms. Cooling has a fine technique and a better tone. Moreover, in their own unruffled fashion, most tracks are built round a definite sense of groove. Of the finger-clicking and toe-tapping variety rather than the butt-shaking and fist-punching one, naturally, but in its unpretentious way this set has groove.
It will take you a couple of numbers to get it. “Third Wish” is a little dated (Carlton or Coffey about a decade back) and the samba-esque “Tamba” is too twee. By track three though, it becomes apparent that Joyce Cooling plays with poise and control and has matured considerably since those early records. She no longer sounds like George Benson slowed down but has an easy swing and a way with chord changes that is most effective. A slight blues edge creeps into “Mm-Mm Good” which steals the show from guest scatsman, Al Jarreau. There is even some modified funkiness. “Daddy-O” positively bounces along and is augmented by fusionist horns and piano. Tower of Power’s Billy Johnson adds some muscle on the drums. It is still too light and breezy to take seriously but has the right ocean drive feel to it.
“Don’t Mind if I Do” is very Crusaders in cruising mode. The guitar work is crisp and has a distinctive vocal quality, to the extent that you are convinced you know the lyrics to this one. Jay Wagner offers a little keyboard pattern that makes you wish the rest of the players had rather more to do throughout the set. “Jelly on My Jacket” would have been better handed over to a remixer — it has nu-jazz, Down to the Bone possibilities. The one proper “Song”, “It’ll Come Back to Me”, is too folksy-earnest for me. Cooling has a pleasant voice but has yet to find the right vehicle for it and her scatting is only so-so. “East Side” is an atmospheric, late-night blues and the most jazz-based of the tunes. Guitar and muted trumpet (Bill Ortiz) combine well, making this the most satisfying piece yet. The album closes with the calm “Whenever the Rain Falls” and an acoustic, Mexican-influenced “It’s All Because of Loving You” — both unthreateningly pleasant.
Easy listening this most certainly is and it will not win converts. Nothing on show here will shift the suspicion that this is chill-out music for middle management types. Nor is there any point wishing that Cooling would tackle some more robust or challenging material. She won’t. Not while her, very West Coast, brand of smoothness sells so well. Yet Third Wish does show a development at the level of artistry, is more than competently executed and can even be said to have character. Devoid of ambitions beyond soothing the listener, and maybe inducing a steady nodding of the head it does at least achieve its goals.
In the end I see little difference between the way records like this work and some of Stan Getz and Bob Brookmeyer’s sixties output or even the abstract lounge/downtempo beats emerging from San Francisco’s hipper clubs. Mind you, they are open to the same charges of blandness and/or syrupiness. What they do prove is that mellowness is always part of the music scene — Cooling’s brand will not suit everybody but it is OK by me.