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Lainie Cooke: Speaking to the Heart

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Lainie CookeWhen Lainie Cooke sings, the heart sinks in poetry made music; air seems to stop to avoid interrupting the flowing of such a magical, beautiful voice. She fills the barely-noticeable silence between notes with a voice that caresses the heart. Her life has been a jazz-bound adventure inspired by an early need to entertain others, landing her in New York City at a very young age.

It's Always You (Harlemwood Records, 2008) is only her second studio album in a career spanning more than 40 years—perhaps that's why every song is so cherished, since Cooke does not visit the studio as often as many would want her to.

In a world where fast is often mistaken with better and more is usually less, being able to listen to some sensitively beautiful vocal jazz is always a good exercise for the exhausted mind. But Lainie Cooke seems to "rearrange the furniture," so to speak, and make a home of her own out of classics like "Too Close for Comfort," "The Very Thought of You" or "I Want to Talk About You."

All About Jazz: Who is Lainie Cooke?

Lainie Cooke: Nothing like starting with an easy question [laughs]. Lainie Cooke is changing all the time, but at my core, I am the music that I sing; I am the people that I love; I am the people that love me. I am still striving to become the artist I hope to be and probably never will. It took me years to even acknowledge that I was an artist. I will never be able to sing all the music that is inside me. I just don't know enough. I work to open myself to more and I sometimes get closer...All of that being said, I believe that the journey of the performer—the artist—is to become who you are and live your life telling that truth as best you can.

In the '60s we use to "play"—we were not scholars just seekers—at the I Ching. Throwing the coins and trying to divine and understand the words of the ancient text. Once when I asked it who I was, I threw "the cauldron." We decided that the meaning that made the most sense at that time was the one that meant "nourishment." That resonated for me. The surrogate earth mother, it was positive. I liked that.

AAJ: What is the main thing you would say about It's Always You?

LC: It's Always You was my second effort at making a CD; very different than the first. There was a desire, a need, to express a specific set of emotions. Probably as close to a ballad album as I might get. I believe the end result of a set or a CD should be to touch the listener—but also to entertain so an album of only ballads doesn't really meet my criteria. The first time I listened to the mix I listened alone and late at night. It seemed the perfect time to hear it.

AAJ: Tell me about the selection process of the songs, and why you picked the ones you picked.

LC: Song selection is difficult and personal. There are so many songs I'd like to sing. We started with songs I liked—that had some meaning for me—and I wanted to record. I rehearsed with [pianist/arranger] Tedd Firth on songs we had performed live and songs I wanted to try. We recorded a few songs that didn't make the CD because they didn't fit with what ultimately became a theme. I didn't really start knowing what would be the theme or that there would be a theme. It evolved. I found myself wanting to sing songs that reflected my own frustration with relationships over the years and that I thought others would understand, too.

Mike Melvoin

Mike Melvoin
b.1937
sent me some tunes to consider and I loved "It's Always You." It said something to me: you can run, you can choose to deny, but when there's someone or something in your life that you love you will keep choosing it— it's always you. Some of the songs I have been singing since I was a teenager and yes, they were personal reflections of my emotional life and growth—or not—since that time.

AAJ: What is vocal jazz to you? And what is jazz to you?

LC: Interesting. Vocal jazz to me means singing like an instrument—scatting. Something I don't do a lot of because I don't really think like a horn. Or more to the point, I don't know how a horn player thinks. I was trained first and foremost as an actor—the story and the melody always come first for me. I learned how to play the piano as a kid, but never well enough to accompany myself. The music just wouldn't come out of my hands—it came out of my throat, my head, my heart. But, scatting is something I can't stop myself from doing. It bursts forth. I think of it as my way of composing. Walking down the street by myself, without benefit of a trio or another player, is when I do my best composing/scatting. Unfortunately—or maybe fortunately—it is also my very private mediation and it's gone with the wind once it's out of my mouth.

I just sing what I know and what I hear. I'm guessing I'm a jazz singer because of my understanding of time and, of course, the music I choose to sing.

AAJ: What is music to you?

LC: Music is a natural part of life, my life, everyone's life. Music is in everything. We all can make music. It is truly what heals us. Recently there have been studies that suggested it is "the arts" that make a healthy life. Last week on TV I saw a story about the growth of choral music in this country and how literally millions of people get together every week to sing with each other. What is the famous quote? "Without music life would be a mistake"—Neitzche. I think that says it all.


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