Carla Cook: Just a Swingin' and a Groovin'
On the question of categories, Carla Cook will say this much: "I'm definitely a jazz singer in that I like to improvise and I like to swing." Beyond that, the subject doesn't interest her. "I don't spend a lot of time haggling with the word "jazz,?" she explains. "I let the "Jazz Police" handle that. I do music."
Carla Cook has been doing music and doing it spectacularly well for a number of years. However, it was with the release of her acclaimed, Grammy-nominated debut CD, It's All About Love in 1999 that Cook separated herself from the ever-growing pack of young female jazz vocalists. In fact, with her remarkable voice, finely honed musicianship and boundless repertoire, Carla Cook has the potential to be the most important jazz singer of her generation.
Just don't tell her that. "I got into this because I wanted to make music that I loved," says Cook. "Whatever God has for me that's the thing I want to get. I listen to my intuition and if it feels good and it feels right and it feels progressive, then that's what I'm going to do."
On the evidence of her just-released sophomore CD, Dem Bones, Carla Cook has every reason to trust her intuition. Dem Bones is a wonderfully inventive and superbly executed jazz record with references to funk, Brazilian and inspirational music. "It is a tribute to the trombones that I've worked with," Cook explains. "When I moved to New York, about 10 years ago, I worked with a band whose leader was a trombonist. Sometimes I would sing with lyrics, but other times I would simply harmonize trombone lines with him. Five years later I met yet another trombonist, and the same sort of thing happened." Her work with Lionel Hampton's Orchestra and George Gee's Make Believe Ballroom Orchestra only furthered Cook's affinity for the bone section.
The trombonists and other instrumentalists on Dem Bones were not chosen at random. "It is important to me that I know the chemistry is going to work when I select musicians." Cook assembled a trombone section composed of players that she had worked with before. Fred Wesley, who also served in the Count Basie Orchestra, and Tyrone Jefferson both had long stints with James Brown. Craig Harris, who has worked with Sun Ra and Abdullah Ibrahim, has been more associated with the avant-garde. As she did on It's All About Love, Cook tapped the phenomenally talented Cyrus Chestnut on keyboards, Billy Kilson on drums and Jeffrey Haynes on percussion. She also recruited bassist James Genus. 'they"re just great musicians," enthuses Cook.
As good as the musicians are, it is Cook's own remarkable gifts that hold the listener's attention on Dem Bones. She has a ravishing voice: burnished and soulful with a perfectly clear tone. Her range extends from a second soprano down to a second alto. "I am a B-flat kind of a woman," laughs Cook. Her intonation and articulation are marvels of precision and her trumpet-like scat choruses are exceptionally well constructed. According to Cook, good pipes alone don't cut it. "When I'm teaching voice, I'm also teaching how to be a band leader. It's not enough to know how to sing a song. You need to learn how to count it off. You better know the key. When [the musicians] know that you know what you are talking about, that's when you earn their respect."
Cook's wide-ranging repertoire reflects her own diverse musical interests. She speaks about Wes Montgomery and Aretha Franklin with equal enthusiasm. On the day of our conversation, she had The Crusaders (Free as the Wind), John Coltrane (Blue Train), Kathleen Battle (So Many Stars), Miles Davis (Kind of Blue), Ernestine Anderson (Now and Then) and Weather Report (Weather Report) in her CD changer. She admires much of the pop music of the 1970s. Citing writers like Stevie Wonder, Carole King, and Marvin Gaye as examples, Cook observes, 'they crafted lyrics, they didn't just write them." However, don't expect her to join the chorus of voices attacking the Great American Songbook as obsolete. "I happen to love standards," she replies. Cook believes that timelessness is the one quality shared by all great music. "In 50 years, we"ll still be listening to Marvin Gaye and we"ll still be listening to Rodgers & Hammerstein." Of course, if you are going to sing a classic, "you have to have something else to say with it or have a different twist on it."
While she has assimilated a variety of musical influences into her style, 'my source," says Cook, "would be Sarah Vaughan." Her list of desert island discs includes Vaughan's I Love Brazil and Crazy and Mixed Up ("her fire breathing solo on "Autumn Leaves" is just amazing"). Cook acknowledges the difficulty created by following in the wake of a once-in-several-generations talent like Vaughan. "It takes a while to figure out [your own style]."
Fortunately, after years of working her way up through the trenches, Carla Cook has found her own voice. "I know what I want," she says simply. That self knowledge is what has allowed Cook to successfully embrace the disparate material found on Dem Bones. Rather than celebrating eclecticism for its own sake, Dem Bones highlights various aspects of a single, complex musical personality.
On several cuts, Cook embraces the jazz tradition of the singer as instrumentalist. She sings the verse to 'the More I See You" accompanied only by the trombones of Harris, Jefferson and Wesley. When the rhythm section appears at the chorus, she glides radiantly through the lyrics before dropping into the bone section to scat in unison with the trombones. On the instrumental "For the Elders," Cook sings the trombone lines in perfect harmony with Wesley and Harris.
Although she is hardly the first singer to experiment with combining jazz and funk, Carla Cook makes the marriage work. Rather than treating them as incompatible idioms, Cook recognizes that both "grooving" and 'swinging" are, fundamentally, exercises in rhythm. On 'dem Bones," an original tune, Cook hits the kind of groove that makes even the rhythmically challenged want to start dancing. When she begins her scat chorus, she not only digs into the tune, she gets even deeper inside the groove. Halfway through the song Cook drops out completely and leaves Wesley, Harris and Jefferson to jam.
Cook reached back to her childhood for Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe." Her tough, funky performance differs as much from the composer's original recording as it does from the versions by jazz singers Patricia Barber and Nancy King.
Trombonist Matthew Gee may have written "Oh Gee," but Cook included the song as a tribute to Eddie Jefferson who recorded it for his 1968 album Body & Soul. 'there are way too many people who don't know who Eddie is," explains Cook, "and I think that is a crime." Eddie Jefferson (1918-1979) is the father of vocalese (writing lyrics for instrumental tunes or instrumental solos). Although there were earlier, isolated examples, "Moody's Mood for Love" established vocalese as part of the jazz repertoire. Most people associate "Moody's Mood" with King Pleasure who recorded the tune in 1952. However, it was actually Eddie Jefferson who formalized the concept of vocalese and who added those lyrics to James Moody's solo on "I'm in the Mood for Love." A stylish singer who maximized the potential of his limited voice, Jefferson's contributions to the jazz vocal tradition have been unjustly neglected.
Cook also has a deep love for the music of Brazil, and Dem Bones features two Brazilian tunes with English lyrics including an absolutely gorgeous version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's 'someone to Light Up My Life." However, Cook was hesitant to record "Like a Lover" because of that song's strong association with Sarah Vaughan. Cook chose to approach the tune more rhythmically phrasing with a harder edge than Vaughan did. "I'm sure some of something she did crept in there, but I like to think some of Carla Cook snuck in there too."
As much fun as tunes like "Oh Gee" and 'dem Bones" are to sing, it is the quieter pieces that are closer to Cook's heart. "I started off trying to sing bebop and wanting to scat through everything," recalls Cook. "By the time you get older and you've lived some of these lyrics, you interpret them differently. They don't mean the same thing as when you were younger. I notice that I am now taking things at tempos that I never would have taken them at years ago." Cook cites the lightly swinging "Just a Sittin and a Rockin" as her favorite cut from the album.
Cook also delivers a quietly powerful performance of the spiritual, "Come Ye Disconsolate." Cook's earliest musical experiences came singing in the choirs of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and the inspirational music of her childhood remains an important part of her musical identity.
Throughout Dem Bones, Cook sings with a confidence and command that are the byproduct of a lifetime of developing her craft. The Detroit native began studying music as a girl. Her early education centered on European classical music, and she studied piano and string bass. Cook discovered jazz through her older brother and the Detroit radio station WJZZ. "It was the kind of station," Cook notes wryly, 'that the "Jazz Police" now would have everybody arrested for. They'd play Eubie Blake in one moment and then they would play Weather Report the next. And it all worked. It was a great format."
In discovering jazz, Carla Cook found her calling. "I knew from the 7th grade that I wanted to be a jazz singer. I never said I wanted to be famous or be a star, I never used those words. I wanted to be a jazz singer." Cook chose to attend college in Boston because of that city's vital jazz scene. After graduation, she moved to New York. She spent the next several years working in small clubs and sitting in with musicians. Cook resisted the idea of recording unless she could do so on her own terms. "I think my idea of Hell would be to record something I hated just because someone was sure it would sell millions of records." The right opportunity finally appeared in the form of the independent record label MAXJAZZ. Cook praises the creative freedom MAXJAZZ allows her. "I know it sounds like I'm just saying this, but they really are special and different."
In 1999, MAXJAZZ released Cook's debut CD It's All About Love to a strong critical and audience reception. "I was pleasantly surprised that [the CD] had such a wide range of acceptance." She was even more surprised when it received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. 'the label was new. I was new on it. It was just completely out of the blue."
Cook's plans for the near future include promoting Dem Bones and performing at clubs and festivals both in the USA and abroad. She would also like to carve out some time to work on her songwriting, and she looks forward to working more with large ensembles. "I don't think I have matured enough musically to pull off the great Carla with Strings yet." But big bands are a different story. "It just feels so good. When it's a really swinging big band, that wall of sound behind you, you can't replace that with anything." She will also continue her involvement with a project close to her heart. Cook has been performing in Udu, a jazz opera by trombonist Craig Harris and poet Sekou Sundiata that highlights the shocking reality that slavery still exists in the 21st Century in the Northwestern African nation of Mauritania.
As for the future, Cook wants to continue to take risks. "I believe in pushing the envelope. I believe in experimentation, which was exactly what Bird and all of those guys did. Sometimes your choices are going to be better than other times. But as long as you are exploring things, you are growing as an artist."
That's not to say that Carla Cook doesn't have career ambitions. "One day, I'd like to scat with the Muppets on Sesame Street." "You know," she muses, "you can get some kind of award and it would all be good, it would all be wonderful, but you"ve got to really be somebody deep to get onto Sesame Street. Dizzy and Joe Williams, they were on Sesame Street. I'm aiming for that."
Is there a particular Muppet that Cook is looking forward to trading fours with" "Elmo is just a cutie, but I remember I liked Snuffleupagus. Snuffie was cool."
No doubt that, when they eventually meet, Snuffie will think the same thing about Carla Cook.