CBC 216: Todd Coolman on jazz bass lines, recording projects, and classical foundations

Jazz bassist Todd Coolman

Jazz bassist Todd Coolman

Today’s podcast features an interview with Todd Coolman, who has just released his latest album Collectibles.  Todd is actually playing a CD release event tonight at Smoke Jazz Club in New York City to celebrate the release of the album, which also features Bill Cunliffe on piano and Dennis Mackrel on drums.  This is the second time Todd has appeared on the podcast—you can hear his interview with Win Hinkle in our archives.

Todd and I cover all sorts of interesting topics in this interview, including his experiences moving from a full-time faculty position down to part-time and the opportunities that opens up for him.  We talk about his classical foundation on the bass and dig into classical and jazz crossover and how lessons learned in one genre are valuable in the other.  We also talk about skills the modern music student needs to be successful and what colleges can do to help facilitate this, and we get into details about recording this new album.

If you enjoyed this episode, check out our interviews with Carlos Henriquez, Chuck Israels, Larry Gray, Ron Carter, Lynn Seaton, and Rufus Reid!


I Found a Dead Body

Dead Body

My wife and I were taking a stroll through Golden Gate Park one sunny morning, forking back and forth on the running paths that line the hilly landscape.  As we ascended a hill by Fushsia Dell, we noticed a man laying under a grove of trees.  He was dressed shabbily and sprawled atop a sleeping bag.

Homeless people are a common sight in San Francisco, especially in Golden Gate Park, so I thought nothing of it, until my wife exclaimed in my ear:

“Jason… that’s a dead body!”

My heart jumped into my throat, and I looked more closely at the human figure.  Looking more closely (we were a good 20 feet away), I noticed certain… things about the body (I’ll spare the exact details for the faint of heart) that indicated that he was, in fact, most likely dead.  Not least of which was the swarm of flies buzzing around the grove of trees.

My wife’s a doctor, and I watched from the sidelines as her instincts kicked in.  She called out to him.

“Sir!  Can you hear me?”

No response.

She approached, getting close enough to discern that, yes, this was most certainly a dead body.

Emergency Response

She called 911, and we watched in amazement as the San Francisco emergency response wheels were set in motion.  Trying to explain precisely where we were in the park was a challenge, but we flagged down the approaching cruiser and within five minutes a cop was taking my wife’s statement.  Nobody seemed to want to get too close to the body.

“Did you attempt to rouse him?” asked the cop.

“I got close and called out to him,” said my wife.  “He is dead, isn’t he?”

“Well,” said the cop.  “We’ve seen people that look as bad as he does that are still alive.”

That was an astonishing statement given the condition of the body.

The medical examiner arrived shortly thereafter, briskly dispelling our concerns that maybe this poor guy was still alive.

“That’s obviously a dead body,” said the ME.  “He’s probably been out here for a few days.”

Yellow tape went up around the site and we were allowed to take off and resume what had suddenly become a much more somber morning.

The Homeless All Around Us

I’m no expert, but this certainly didn’t look like an act of violence.  The body looked quite frail, with gray hair and stubbly beard, though it’s hard to tell age on a dead body that’s been exposed to the elements for several days.

At first, I thought it amazing that this body could be laying out in this park for a few days without anyone noticing.  After all, it was only a few feet off of a heavily traveled running path in a popular park.  But then I started to think about how many homeless people I “see but don’t see” on any given day.  I’ve lived in urban ares with significant homeless populations for decades, and street people kind of fade into the fabric of the city for me.

This wasn’t always the case—I clearly remember the extreme discomfort and embarrassment 18-year-old Jason felt when first encountering people asking for money on the streets of Chicago.  How could all these people have ended up at this point in their lives?  I didn’t get it and it troubled me.  Probably a good thing.  Over the years, that reaction got cauterized out of my brain and I started to see street people more like an obstacle to wheel my bass around, like a lamp pole or bench.

He looked like he died peacefully.  Overdose?  Cancer?  Who knows. But if it’s time for your card to be punched, leaving this world under a grove of trees in Golden Gate Park is not a bad way to go.  It’s got to be better than dying in the subzero temperatures under a bridge in Chicago.

Shocking the Doctors

You’d expect that, given their profession, doctors would be the least likely people to be squeamish about someone finding a dead body.  It was surprising just how shocking us finding that body was to my wife’s doctor colleagues—they all seemed scandalized upon hearing the story.  I suppose there’s a difference between encountering death in a medical setting and finding a body in the park, but the reaction was still surprising.

Shocking the Kids

There’s an absurdist part of my personality that enjoys saying strange things (within reason) to large groups of teenagers and observing their reaction.  It’s a good way to break up rehearsals, and it can make you seem quite mysterious if applied judiciously.  I’ve told many a crazy gig story in orchestra rehearsals, which results in a lot of laughter and quizzical looks.

So… I had to decide… do I talk about the dead body with my orchestra?

The next day, I found myself up on the podium in front of one of my orchestras (about 60 students), and they were merrily playing, tuning, chatting, and settling into rehearsal.  I couldn’t help myself.

“Hey guys, guess what?  I found a dead body!

Note to self: if you ever want the total, rapt attention of a large group of high schoolers, just say the words “dead body.”  Never have I heard a room fall so eerily silent.  I had their complete, rapt attention.  If only I could get that attention when trying to give them a new bowing!

I related the story, they asked some questions, and we proceeded with a very somber rehearsal.

Dead Body Club

Coincidentally, my orchestra director colleague at my school has also found a dead body.  He was in Laos on vacation and was chilling out on the beach when the lower half of a body (no upper half in site) washed ashore.  It had obviously been in the water for quite some time.  He found the manager of the property, who shrugged and said that he’d heard about that body bouncing around in the surf.  He said he’d take care of it sometime soon.  A little bit of a different response than the San Francisco authorities, huh?

What are the odds that two orchestra directors working together would have independently found dead bodies?


CBC 215: Robin Kesselman on audition strategies, injury recovery, and bow arm practicing

Houston Symphony principal bassist Robin Kesselman

Houston Symphony principal bassist Robin Kesselman

Today’s episode features Houston Symphony principal bassist Robin Kesselman.  Robin studied with David Allen Moore and Paul Ellison at the Coburn School of Music and the University of Southern California, and with Hal Robinson and Edgar Meyer at the Curtis Institute of Music.  He has also performed as Guest Principal Bass with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, travelled internationally with both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and performed with the National, Atlanta, and Baltimore Symphonies.

During his time at USC, Robin sustained a playing injury that took him out of commission for a prolonged period.  We dig into how Robin ultimately recovered from this and how it changed his approach to practicing and performing on the bass, and how he practiced while he was out of commission.  This was a left arm injury, and Robin continued to practice open string and harmonics with the bow, going into his lessons and working on the Bottesini Concerto on open strings.  We also discuss how Robin approaches the audition process: his preparation strategies, his musical goals for an audition, and using visualization techniques.

We also feature excerpts from Krzysztof Penderecki’s Duo Concertante with Eunice Kim on violin.  Enjoy, and be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get these episodes downloaded automatically to your mobile device!

Interview Highlights

Discoveries During Playing Injury:

  • sitting in practice room – “this hurts, but it also still sounds bad” – the mistake of pushing through pain
  • this time spent not using his left hand ultimately took his bow game to a new level – he spent large amounts of time just practicing with the right hand – playing solos and excerpts on open strings / harmonics in lessons!
  • “the building blocks with which I was making my shapes were not completely honest” – referring to the bow arm
  • mental practice / visualization – he got into this during this time period
  • learning the difference between an ache and something more serious

Thoughts on Auditioning:

  • there’s nothing that isn’t practicable
  • timing and pulse
  • mathematical pulse/note division vs. feeling right
  • the fallacy of perfect audition rounds
  • similarities between prepping for an audition and a recital
  • auditions have to be an artistic endeavor and about musical expression
  • if you walk out and your whole goal is to play notes that are even and in tune, the second that one note isn’t exactly the same as another note you officially have nothing left to offer, because your single goal has crumbled
  • if your goal is to make lines and to make shapes and be expressive, it’s ok if one note is a little shorter than the others
  • philosophy from David: as soon as you come in and things are in tune and in time, you are officially at zero

The Audition Process in Detail:

  • record constantly during this whole process -throughout the whole day
  • first 50% of the interval
    • really hibernate and work things super slow – considerably under 50% tempo
    • move something up 40 clicks over a period of weeks
    • A and B lists that kind of parallel each other (one Mozart Symphony on one and one on the other, for example)
    • doesn’t play for anyone during this time – nothing’s put together – it’s all really cut up at this point
  • next 25%
    • buff out the edges, smooth out the music, give it a shine
    • playing with recordings, getting the flow right
  • last 25%
    • take the show on the road, play for anybody and everybody, start setting up mock auditions and lessons with other (non-bass) instrumentalists
  • the last week
    • go back to “hibernating”
    • stop playing for people – running rounds – 4-5 excerpts in a row
  • hours wise it’s similar through he whole process, but the hours are being used differently
  • all the way until audition time, there was never a day/time when he could not continue to make things better
  • have a specific game plan for those 20 minutes of warm-up once you arrive at the hall
  • bass players don’t hire bassists – committees of other instrumentalists do

Jane Little dies after 71 years of Atlanta Symphony membership

Jane Little bass

Photo by Dustin Chambers

This story has been reported widely already, but 87-year-old Atlanta Symphony bassist Jane Little passed away this month after performing with the Atlanta Symphony for more than 71 years.  She collapsed during the encore of a concert.

The 4’ 11” bassist was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records earlier this year as longest serving member of an orchestra.  Jane joined the Atlanta Symphony in 1945 when she was just sixteen.

As soon as I heard about Jane’s Guinness record, I put Jane on my “to interview,” but sadly I never got a chance to chat with her for the podcast before she left us.

One of the things I love most about doing the podcast is how it creates an oral history of the music world in general and the bass in particular.  I’m trying to connect with as many of our older bassists as possible  in part for this reason. I only wish I’d gotten off my duff and scheduled something with Jane.  She seemed like a cool lady!