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Carla Cook: Just a Swingin' and a Groovin'

Mathew Bahl By

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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 Swing Orchestra'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.
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