Todd Coolman, on Perfect Strangers, and Jazz Education (and Live Tonight on WKCR)

Todd Coolman, the journeyman jazz bassist and director of the jazz program at Purchase College (SUNY) will be heard live tonight at 8 on WKCR, 89.9 FM in New York. todd-coolman1

Show host Sharif Abdus-Salaam will talk with Coolman about his latest CD, last year’s Perfect Strangers. Listeners not in the NYC area can tune in here.

The disc, released on ArtistShare, a label that lets fans fund and directly participate in recording projects, has to count as one of 2008’s most unusual, if not most provocative, releases.

Coolman solicited tunes, online, from composers worldwide. Once he chose the compositions to be included in the project, he took several name musicians into the studio, and together they tweaked arrangements and played the tunes. He referred to his group, with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, trumpeter Brian Lynch, pianist Jim McNeely and drummer John Riley, as the Learning Community Quintet.

The result is a collection of vigorously played multicolor jazz, from the aptly titled, pleasantly grooving  “Crescent City Ditty” to pretty ballad “Pastorale,” built on a variety of surprisingly potent new voices. Alexander and Lynch work well together as front-line horns, and the saxophonist turns in a series of particularly well-constructed solos.

The music was penned by previously unknown jazz composers, ranging in age from 17 to 67, Coolman told me during a recent interview.

“I think I received somewhere between 15 and 20 compositions altogether,” he said. “This was the first-ever such venture for me. It’s probably unprecedented. And in some respects, it’s experimental. I’m hopeful that other composers would be inspired to participate in something like this in the future, should I do a volume two.”

Coolman, during our conversation, talked at length about the project, and about the path he has taken, from classical music student at Indiana University to orchestral gigs in Mexico to backing the likes of Sonny Stitt and Zoot Sims in Chicago to writing music books to creating Grammy-winning liner notes for the boxed set Miles Davis Quintet: 1965-1968. Much of what he had to say will be included in a  magazine feature slated for publication in March.

We also talked about a common concern of jazz educators: More and more musicians are graduating with jazz degrees, but the opportunities for those students to hone their skills by playing professionally with older mentors are shrinking.

“Not only is that disappointing, but it’s frightening,” he said. “It’s a huge dilemma, I think, especially in the area of a profound absence of both what I call apprenticeship positions and mentorship situations. In (former) days, all of your elders were your mentors. They were the ones that would put their arms around you and help you through and into this music, in all kinds of ways. Some taught by example, some taught orally. Some were mean, some were supportive. It took all kinds.

“There was an opportunity to grow and learn your skills with experts on a daily basis,” Coolman added. “I feel really very badly that young musicians are not being afforded that learning and development tool, and that the industry has been complicit in creating bandleaders and creating ‘geniuses’ and bestowing that (label) on people who haven’t really learned the craft yet.

“Up until recent times, these kinds of mentorship and apprenticeship opportunities had always existed in jazz music, from the beginning,” he said. “Starting in the early ’80s, that began to disappear. Guys in my generation are so lucky to at least have had that experience.”

So with opportunities for mentorships and live performing shrinking, why should a young musician pursue a formal  jazz education?

“We have to quit thinking of college as a vocational school,” Coolman said. “College, to me, is a place where you go to learn something, to develop intellectual and social skills so that you can become a contributing member of society. No one needs to go to college to learn to play jazz, anyway. In the same respect, college doesn’t create a brilliant economist.

“When I interview candidates for our program, I ask them if there’s any single thing in this world besides jazz music that they could conceivably be happy doing. If the answer is yes, then I urge them to pursue that. (I tell them) If you feel like the only way you can be actualized is to pursue a career in jazz performance, then we can help you along the way. But we can’t guarantee anything.”

Coolman’s next gig is this Monday, Jan. 12, at the National Arts Club in New York City, with a quartet led by trumpeter Jon Faddis. The group also includes pianist David Hazeltine and drummer Dion Parson. Seating is limited, and reservations are required. More info.

Later this month, he plays the Playboy Jazz Cruise with Moody, pianist Renee Rosnes and drummer Adam Nussbaum.

For his complete itinerary, click here.

In addition to Perfect Strangers, Coolman is heard on the following recent CDs:

  • James Moody and Hank Jones Quartet, Our Delight (IPO, 2008);
  • Rob Schneiderman, Glass Enclosure (Reservoir, 2008)
  • Pete Malinverni, Joyful! (ArtistShare, 2007)
  • Gerald Wilson Orchestra, Monterey Moods (Mack Avenue, 2007)