Take 5: Carla Cook
By Adam Tawfik
Jazz, like many art forms, experienced a renaissance in the 1990s. In the 1980s, much of jazz’s output, with prehistoric abrasive synthesizers, sounded like elevator music. In the following decade, we saw many musicians turning to a more traditional sound (and real instruments) and updating the standards with their own personality. At the tail end of the 90s, MaxJazz, an independent record label, formed and introduced the consumer to a crop of brilliant and original musicians, quickly establishing an esteemed reputation for honoring artists’ creativity.
One of its brightest discoveries was Detroit vocalist Carla Cook, whose auspicious debut album It’s All About Love, helped put MaxJazz on the map with its critical and commercial success, and even scoring a Grammy nomination (though she lost to the higher profile, but bland Diana Krall). In just three years, Cook continued her string of excellence with a duo of albums- Dem Bones (2001) and Simply Natural (2002). (In my opinion, Dem Bones is the strongest because it has more bopping and avant-garde funk, and many of the tracks feature a real groovy horn section). All three albums are available on MaxJazz’s website.
Sadly, she hasn’t recorded another album since. Although she still tours all over the world, appearances seem to be few and far between and they’re not very well-publicized. Until she returns to the recording studio, here are five tracks for your pleasure while you crave for Cook to hurry on back.
Cook’s powerful pipes ably hold up with the brasstastic Brooklyn Jazz Orchestra on this Duke Ellington classic. Although she sings one bridge, her beautiful chest voice makes every moment magical.
4. The Way You Look Tonight
This romantic ballad, made famous by crooners Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, tends towards soppiness. With the help of this up-tempo arrangement, Cook’s straight-forward yet soulful phrasing keeps things fun and swinging. With solid accompaniment from drummer George Gray and pianist Cyrus Chestnut, it’s largely a duet between Cook and Daryl Hall grooving the bass. Cook’s scatting is top-notch.
Cook brings her earthiness to this mid-tempo rendition of the romantic bossa nova. The other highlight is Cyrus Chesnut, collaborator on all three of her albums, playing a sensuous piano and a Fender Rhodes, (an electric piano that creates the vibraphone-esque sound).
2. Inner City Blues
Aided primarily by a funky electric piano and a vibrant set of percussions, Cook’s soulful cover of Marvin Gaye’s immortal classic stresses the desperation and anguish of black oppression in America (the lyrics are sadly just as relevant today). She provides some nice scatting throughout the track before it finishes with a fantastic drum and percussion solo.
1. The More I See You
Jazz with strings is often dicey, as they tend to either overtake the syncopated jazzy vibe or remain too much in the background. The Brazilian-based Orchestra Jazz Sinfônica, with the perfect balance of brass, woodwind, and strings, effortlessly grooves with Cook. After a soft and gentle introduction, things get popping with Cook swinging and scatting away.