June 28th, 2016, 1:20 pm by Greg


By J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu

By the time bassist Todd Coolman arrived at the Skidmore Jazz Institute in the summer of 1997, he had the kind of résumé you need a wheelbarrow to carry around: he’d played with sax icon James Moody for nearly 30 years, had two discs of his own under his belt, and worked with major players like Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz.

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While an accomplished educator, Coolman wasn’t just coming to Saratoga Springs to be part of a summer program that has turned out a cadre of natural born musical killers – change-makers like Christian Scott, Ryan Cohan, Myron Walden, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” bandleader Jonathan Batiste. He was also there to shadow Milt Hinton, the octogenarian bass legend who made his bones with Cab Calloway and had been the spiritual anchor of the Institute since its founding in 1987. When Milt passed in 2000, Coolman had the opportunity to step into those shoes.

To be frank, though, Coolman wears his own shoes, and has worn them comfortably. Eighteen years after arriving at Skidmore, he is now the Director of the Institute, leading an esteemed faculty that includes both established veterans (Jon Faddis, Gary Smulyan, John Riley and Vic Juris) and gems of the current generation (Michael Dease, Jeb Patton and David Wong). Todd will be the quick-witted – and, occasionally, sharp-tongued – emcee when the Ron Carter Golden Striker Trio opens this year’s Skidmore Jazz Institute Concert Series tonight (Tuesday, June 28) at the Zankel Music Center, and again next Tuesday (July 5) when pianist Bill Charlap brings his trio to the perfect acoustic venue for its solid standard sound.

But Coolman hasn’t just settled into the role of year-round educator. (He is also a tenured professor at SUNY Purchase.) A few weeks ago, Todd dropped his fourth album as a leader – the Sunnyside recording Collectables. Featuring present Institute faculty member Bill Cunliffe on piano and past faculty member Dennis Mackrel on drums, Coolman took advantage of Zankel’s aforementioned acoustics and recorded a tasty set of tracks that showcases both Coolman’s booming resonance on his instrument and his keen ear for an exciting composition.

I’ve always liked Todd Coolman. Aside from the fact that he’s gone all-in on a Greater Nippertown institution I hold very dear, he’s also a fly-fisherman and a fellow Red Sox fan – which means he’s a dreamer, and we need all the dreamers we can get. Todd was kind enough to take a few minutes out of preparation for this year’s season to speak about the Institute and his new disc:

Q: When you first joined Skidmore Jazz Institute, did you have any idea your affiliation with the Institute would last this long, or become this involved?

A: Not at all. I didn’t even know what they might think of the work I did. Nothing in life, or in the music business, is guaranteed.

Q: There’s kind of a sense that the Institute (and its accompanying concert series) just sort of pops up every summer – like Brigadoon for jazz musicians. But the process for getting each summer together is a lot more involved than that, isn’t it?

A: The credit goes to the Office of the Dean of Special Programs at Skidmore. They work on the Jazz Institute and many other summer institutes year-round. It is an immense amount of work, planning and troubleshooting. They are key to the Jazz Institute’s success.

Q: Ryan Cohan and Jonathan Batiste are just two of the many Institute alumni that have come back to play the Institute concert series. Now you’ve got another alum, bassist David Wong, on the faculty this year. Is this the first time you’ve had a former student come back as a teacher, and how does it feel to see people who’ve come through the program return to contribute to that program?

A: I believe David is the first former SJI student to join our faculty. Actually, he was my student. He has blossomed into a first-rate player and teacher. It does give us all pleasure and a sense of pride to have former students join us as peers. I believe David is the first – of many. I am sure he will not be the last.

Q: We both go back to when the Institute concert series was held in the Bernhard Theatre, a wonderfully intimate space – although that intimacy came with drawbacks (limited seating, spotty air conditioning, people camped out in the aisles). Do you have fond memories of playing (or seeing) concerts at the Bernhard, and does having Zankel Music Center as your current performance space help with recruiting artists, faculty and/or students?

A: There were a lot of great and memorable concerts presented in Bernhard, and it was always packed to the gills. Much energy! Fond memories, indeed! That said, Zankel, and the Ladd Concert Hall are state-of-the-art facilities. Ladd has some of the finest acoustics in the world. I believe it does help attract students, faculty and the public as well.

Q: When choosing artists for the concert series, what’s more important: Getting someone who will do a great show, or getting someone who will give a great Master Class?

A: That’s a great question, but in the end, the primary focus of SJI is on the students, and their experience. So, although we wish to present only the finest performers, we also want them to provide our students with valuable information and insights of a lasting value. My connection with numerous colleagues on the New York City jazz scene is an asset, in this regard, and I believe I have been able to get our bread buttered on both sides, so to speak.

Q: As a fellow bass player, you must have a lot of thoughts about the artist who opens the concert series tonight (June 28), Ron Carter. Can you please share some with us?

A: I am currently studying with him privately. That should tell you all you need to know.

Q: Bill Charlap’s technical skills are almost without rival. For you, what else does Bill bring to the table – both as an educator and as a performer?

A: Bill is simultaneously one of the most generous, knowledgeable and humble individuals it has ever been my pleasure to be associated with in the music business. His depth of knowledge of the Great American Songbook is virtually unrivaled. His depth of research and passion for performing are evident at all times. In his sphere, he is peerless.

Q: You’ve been quite busy yourself between last year and this: Your latest disc “Collectables” just dropped on Sunnyside recently. But the Institute (and Zankel, specifically) was very involved in this recording, wasn’t it?

A: I have performed and taught with Bill Cunliffe and Dennis Mackrel over the years at SJI, and I believe we have achieved a high level of simpatico in the process. As luck would have it, Ladd Hall was available for a day and a half last summer while we were all at Skidmore, so the project came together as a coincidental result. We were able to take advantage of the great acoustics, as well as the fact that Joel Moss, a great producer who lives in Saratoga Springs was available and willing to assist us in the process – serendipity, for sure.

Q: In the liner notes, you say the material on “Collectables” comes from “the thousands (of tunes) I have either heard or played over the years.” How much of the material come from past gigs you’ve played (either as a leader or a sideman), and how many are just tunes you dig that you wanted to record? Also, when you say “collectables,” that also includes relationships you’ve collected over the years, right?

A: 50/50, more or less. Yes, especially of the relationship I have formed with Bill and Dennis… very special.

Q: You also say in the liner notes that “…bassists, generally, are seldom bandleaders.” Why do you think that is? Is it a question of the bass’ function as a foundation instrument, or do you think it’s a question of personality? And when you deal with students at the Institute, do you look for leadership qualities, or is that something that just manifests itself automatically?

A: There are likely many reasons, but one reason is that music presenters seem to have a hard time conceiving of the bass as anything other than a “background” instrument. Another is that, as a rule, traditional “leaders” names are more well-known. I do not think personality has anything to do with it. As far as leadership qualities in the students at the Institute, in my experience, those qualities emerge organically. Some are simply natural leaders.



Here’s the complete schedule of public concerts for the 2016 Skidmore Jazz Institute summer season:

Today (Tuesday, June 28), 8pm: The Ron Carter Golden Striker Trio featuring the Grammy Award-winning bassist Ron Carter, Donald Vega (piano) and Russell Malone (guitar)

Thursday (June 30), 8pm: Skidmore Jazz Institute Faculty Septet featuring Scott Wendholt (trumpet), Jimmy Greene (tenor saxophone), Michael Dease (trombone), Bill Cunliffe (piano), Vic Juris (guitar), Doug Weiss (bass) and John Riley (drums)

Friday (July 1), 1pm: Skidmore Jazz Institute participants (FREE)

Tuesday, July 5, 8pm: The Bill Charlap Trio featuring the 2015 Grammy Award-winning pianist, Peter Washington (bass) and Kenny Washington (drums), along with special guests Warren Vaché (trumpet) and Houston Person (saxophone)

Thursday, July 7, 8pm: Skidmore Jazz Institute Faculty Septet featuring Jon Faddis (trumpet), Gary Smulyan (baritone saxophone), Michael Dease (trombone), Jeb Patton (piano), Paul Bollenback (guitar), David Wong (bass) and Kenny Washington (drums)

Friday, July 8, 1pm: Skidmore Jazz Institute participants (FREE)

All concerts are held in the Arthur Zankel Music Center’s Helen Filene Ladd Concert Hall. Admission is $8; $5 seniors; FREE students & children, except for Jazz Institute participant concerts which are FREE.