Tag Archives: Jazz

Take 5: Carla Cook

Take 5: Carla Cook

Courtesy of jmw.cz

Courtesy of jmw.cz

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.

5. Solitude

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.

3. Estaté

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.

Take 5 Retrospective: Liane Carroll

Courtesy of thekeyboard.co.uk

Courtesy of thekeyboard.co.uk

By Adam Tawfik

While I have nothing productive to show 95% of the time I binge on TV, every now and again this medium helps me discover something new and wonderful. One evening I stumbled across a concert on BBC (which has recently surfaced on YouTube thanks to the independent music label Splash Point Music) by an artist with whom I had absolutely no familiarity. This time my curiosity served we well.

From the moment Liane Carroll opened her set with her energetic piano playing skills and smoky soulful vocals on the swinging “That Old Black Magic,” I was a fan. In this performance (like in all her other concerts and CDs) Carroll enlivens her arrangements of an eclectic mix of old standards and more modern covers (of songs by The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waitts, among others) with a highly original footprint that feels fresh and modern without disregarding the integrity of the original material (and in many cases improving on it).

Courtesy of lianecarroll.co.uk

Courtesy of lianecarroll.co.uk

Several vocalists are also talented instrumentalists but don’t accompany themselves due to the difficulty of doing both at the same time. Carroll makes singing and playing piano simultaneously look effortless while doing both with gusto.

After being the first woman to win the BBC Jazz Awards twice, Carroll has built up a considerable fan base in Britain but still remains virtually unknown in the States, only having made her American debut in 2009 and touring here very seldom. At least she records albums regularly, most of which are available on Amazon and iTunes.

From interviews and fan recordings and testimonials, the Hastings-born Carroll seems approachable and totally unpretentious about her musical virtuosity. When she’s not on tour, Carroll performs at a local pub in her native Hastings, where she resides with her husband and sometimes collaborator, bassist Roger Carey.

Here are five tracks that demonstrate the versatility and dynamism of Liane Carroll.

5. How Insensitive

Although the bulk of Carroll’s work is solo, she collaborates with other musicians, the results are no less stellar. The usually bombastic and groovy Carroll gives a beautifully understated rendition of this Jobim classic. Bobby Wellen’s sax beautifully compliments her sultry voice.

4. Unknown

Full confession: Carroll does mention the name of the tune, but I can’t understand what she’s saying. But that doesn’t detract from my love for this upbeat scattastic track. In addition to Carroll’s soulful scatting, there are excellent solos from Roger Carey and drummer Greg Leppard.

3. Pennies from Heaven

Carroll’s smoky voice gives this delightfully old fashioned 1936 standard a more contemporary vibe whilst retaining the nostalgic pep in her piano playing. There’s also some great a cappella scatting to look forward to.

2. Wee Small Hours/River

Out of all her solo performances, her powerhouse medley of two heartbreak songs is my favorite. Carroll begins by delivering David Mann’s 1950s ballad “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” as a mournful lullaby, before she crescendos to Joni Mitchell’s “River” with a more animated sense of urgency.

1. Eleanor Rigby

Carroll’s gospel-sounding vocals and jazzified mid tempo give this Beatles cover poignant empathy and gravitas for the titular character and “all the lonely people” missing in the lethargic original version.


Take 5: Dakota Staton

dak ft

By Adam Tawfik

Every profession has its obstacles, but few match the challenges of survival in the cutthroat and fickle music industry. Millions of so-called musicians (really glorified noisemakers) have had a one-night stand with fame, but every now and again, there is an artist who has been criminally overlooked and ripe for rediscovery. Dakota Staton definitely falls into that latter category.

While Staton has achieved more than 15-minutes of fame, she has never matched the success of her debut 1957 LP “The Late, Late Show.” While full of pep, “Late Show” only scratches at the surface of Staton’s amazing talents.

Courtesy of nytimes.com

Courtesy of nytimes.com

Many attribute Staton’s decline in popularity to her conversion to Islam and marriage to the controlling and divisive trumpeter Talib Ahmad Dawud. If this is the case, it is wholly the consumer’s loss as they’ve missed out on an impressive body of work that showcases a powerful, soulful voice that became even better with age. Although she passed away in 2007, her work will live on.

Here are five songs selected to turn you into a diehard Dakota Staton fan.

5. It Could Happen to You

While Staton hadn’t quite developed the huskiness in her voice at this early point in her career, she had vivid, dynamic energy that is fully realized in her rendition of this song (I know the video says it’s “Some Other Spring,” but trust me, it’s not). The album’s title “Dynamic” is fully earned.

4.  Jim

Staton effectively delivers a restrained performance on this track, poignantly narrating the tragic saga of a woman who “will go on carrying the torch for Jim,” a ne’er-do-well who doesn’t love her. This is the first time I’ve heard this tune, but it’s becoming one of my favorite heartbreak songs.

3. Young Generation

When Jazz fell out of favor with American audiences’ in the mid-1960s throughout the 1970s, many artists in the field dabbled in R & B, Disco, and/or Pop. Staton is one of the few to satisfyingly crossover, with this 1970 R & B/Funk song as the strongest. It’s intelligent, catchy lyrics and groovy beat (and of course the powerhouse Staton herself) make this song the perfect tribute to the brave young men and women who crusaded the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam protests and fought valiantly for a more equal, just world.

2. I Thought About You

This one is on the list as much for the fact that it’s one of the few pieces of footage of her available on the internet, even if the quality is shoddy. But for the few seconds that the videographer actually films Staton, we get a glimpse of a remarkable diva, with her larger-than-life poodle-esque mane of hair and heavily beaded white blouse and trousers which emphasizes her hefty bosom and voluptuous figure. As always, she goes against the grain in her interpretation of standards making this song, which is normally performed as a languid ballad, a groovy foot-tapper.

1. Mean to Me

I’ve heard this standard serviceably recorded by several other jazz singers, but Staton with her powerful smoky voice and bluesy phrasing imbues a sense of passion and gravitas lacking in other interpretations. This definitely is her best individual performance and possibly one of the best recorded ballads of jazz history.