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Carla Cook: Just a Swingin' and a Groovin'

Mathew Bahl By

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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.

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