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Carla Cook

Seeing Carla Cook perform is watching joy in motion. She sings with an ease that makes an audience instantly comfortable with her; yet she can turn on the intensity at a moment’s notice. She glides through a song, nodding to each of her instrumentalists as they take their turn at the spotlight. In acknowledging the applause, she generously includes her sidemen.

Carla’s musical background includes training as a choral singer in many different styles, as well as piano and string bass studies. She uses her varied background and a wealth of experience to create a luxurious world of sound for her listeners.

We caught up with Carla just after her 10:00 p.m. performance at the John F. Kennedy Center’s new Jazz Club. Even though the hour was late, she displayed the same energy and exuberance for her craft that led audience members to happily line up for her CDs and autograph after each show.

Jazz Review: Did you really decide to become a jazz musician in 8th grade? How did this happen?

Carla Cook: It may have even been 7th grade. I just remember being around junior high age. My oldest brother was a jazz fanatic, and he listened to a lot of a few musicians. One of them was Nancy Wilson; and I used to listen to her, hear and imitate. I didn’t want to just sound like her - I wanted to be her. I had a pink see-through hairbrush, and I would look in the mirror, and I would do the whole thing. The music itself appealed to me; and it didn’t matter that the music was not popular amongst my peers. It was my special thing, and I knew I wanted to do this. Also, somewhere along the line, maybe a year or two later, there was Ella Fitzgerald. I think, because I had started off doing choral music and singing in choirs, it had never dawned on me that someone might sing something that wasn’t on the paper. The fact that she made it up, and that it was different every time, was completely fascinating to me, the whole improvisation thing. Within those couple of years, certainly by the time I got to high school, I was adamant about what I wanted to do.

Jazz Review: Were you singing in both church choirs and school choirs?

Carla Cook: Absolutely. I sang in a church choir; but I was also in the Musical Youth International. I was in my school’s Madrigal Singers, Choir A. I went to Australia with Musical Youth International, which was a statewide organization. I was the state honors choir a couple of years. My school’s choirs were the best in three states, the whole Midwest; we did the whole adjudication thing.

Jazz Review: You studied voice for a long time. Did you study different styles, or did you just stick to jazz? What techniques did you emphasize in your vocal studies?

Carla Cook: My voice teacher at Detroit Community Music School was a European classical voice teacher. He did not have a respect for anything other than classical European music. Without him knowing my ambitions, I would frequently hear him make quips about pop music. But my objective was to learn to sing. I wanted to learn to warm up well. I wanted to learn the technique of the instrument; and then I could do what I wanted with it. I was young and I wasn’t about to sit there and argue or debate my issue; I wasn’t equipped to have that argument with him. I knew that he was really good at training the voice; and what I did with it afterwards was up to me.

Jazz Review: How did studying string bass affect your ideas about vocal jazz?

Carla Cook: As an instrument, I learned to appreciate it an a bass as well as a base in music. It’s always been that foundation for me; and my ear is pretty dependent on it, much more so than a chordal instrument.

Jazz Review: As a musician who trained as both an instrumentalist and a vocalist, what do you think is the difference between playing an instrument and using your "natural instrument" to communicate to an audience?

Carla Cook: It’s two different disciplines. As a vocalist, I do try to communicate with the audience on a level I never did playing a piano in a recital or bass in an orchestra. I was a member of an ensemble; so it wasn’t about Carla communicating so much. There are some things that are expected of a vocalist that may or may not be expected of an instrumentalist, like the banter in between songs, you’re "on" on another level.

Jazz Review: You have recorded several Duke Ellington tunes that are not particularly well known. What got you interested in these forgotten gems?

Carla Cook: Duke Ellington was a masterful composer. How many times have we heard "Satin Doll" or "Don’t Get Around Much Anymore"? He wrote so much music. It’s like a great secret that we need to tap.

Jazz Review: He wrote over a thousand songs.

Carla Cook: And perhaps a thousand more that we don’t know about. Everything I’ve done has been done somewhere before, just not as a popular selection. I do like to try and get music that has not been recorded to death. It’s fresh not just for me but also, I hope, for the listening audience. Maybe "Tulip or Turnip" will be really, really popular I think it deserves to be/

Jazz Review: You have the ability to go from filmy smooth, like champagne, to intensely focused, like burgundy, and back again in a single song. What images do you use to produce the different sounds of your singing?

Carla Cook: I hear different textures and different approaches. Part of the freedom of singing, is that I can reach into all of these different things that I grew up hearing and I grew up singing, when and if I feel they’re appropriate. I guess I just didn’t get the rulebook, if there is a book that said, "This is how things are supposed to be sung." I simply sing things the way I hear and I feel them at the time. I might do the same song ten times with the same sentiment; but if I have a different apex one particular night, that I can go there and I don’t feel bound by a rule.

Jazz Review: What adjective would you use to describe your singing?

Carla Cook: Freeing. This is a way that I get to express myself. Writers use the pen; singers use the voice. And fortunately, because it’s not only words, when I improvise, I get to use rhythm, I get to use melody, and I get to use syllables that make no sense at all. I’m not just talking about a feeling. It’s nice to try to articulate a feeling just that way without being bound to anything else.

Jazz Review: If you could be someone else for one day, who would that be, and why?

Carla Cook: For one day I would like to be male, because of a lot of the things that society puts on females. For one day I could get away with some things.

Jazz Review: During your show tonight, you mentioned Eddie Jefferson as one of the prime musical influences in your life. Please talk about him a little bit.

Carla Cook: When I was growing up in Detroit, we had a wonderful radio station, WJZZ, and they played a lot of Eddie Jefferson. You know, he’s the father of vocalese. At the same time I was learning about solos and improvisation, he happened to be a singer who put words to these solos. It was just a natural connection. Also, he had a bounce; his vocalese is the epitome of free. He sounds as though he’s making up those lyrics on the spot, although he’s not. They’re all just leaping out of his mouth, and it’s a story that makes complete sense. Right here, right now it sounds like he just made it up, but he did not, I know that now. Because I didn’t realize he was putting lyrics to someone else’s solos, I was thinking they were his solos. Not being connected to the rest of the planet, I had no way of knowing that, outside of Detroit, Eddie Jefferson’s name wasn’t as big as Miles’. More than that, I thought he was just the swinginest. Listening to his music, there are some tunes that I just have to get up and dance around the room.

Jazz Review: How do you view your marriage of jazz singing with other musical genres like pop, country, rhythm and blues, and gospel? How do you deal with what you have referred to as " the real and imaginary boundaries in music"?

Carla Cook: I don’t. They exist for other people. They don’t exist for me. Music is music. I’m a jazz vocalist, that’s home for me, that’s the root and the base of all the music that I’m singing; but that doesn’t mean that there’s a stop sign for me. I want to put other influences in. There are great songs out there. I wasn’t even around in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and I do that music. I was a product of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. That music is as much a part of what I do as anything else. I feel like if I’m excluding that, then I’m lying.

Jazz Review: Your new CD, Simply Natural, will be released on October 1 on the MaxJazz label. Please tell me about your original title track for this recording.

Carla Cook: I am really "Nature Girl." My passions are reading, gardening, and I appreciate the more basic things. That’s not to say that I don’t like fine things; but I appreciate the simple things in life. The other part of that is, after the last CD, Dem Bones, we had to do so much rearranging of the music because I could not afford to take that many instrumentalists on tour. I had so much fun recording that CD; but half of that music never really got played. I wanted to make sure that, on this CD, we were going to keep it simple, going back to the basic trio for most of the songs.

Jazz Review: Your interpretation of "Scarborough Fair" on Simply Natural is quite intriguing, really wonderful. How did you choose this selection, and how do you view Paul Simon’s music?

Carla Cook: Thank you, I’m glad you like it. I like Paul Simon’s music, and think he is a masterful writer. "Scarborough Fair" has a great melody I remembered from a long time ago, and I knew that I wanted to take it from 3/4 to 4/4. I had some basic ideas about it before I even got to it. I knew I would do an acappella introduction. I realize that part of my choral experience probably played into hearing some of those parts. That’s another place that’s home for me. I started out in group singing, and fortunately, I’ve always been able to hear a lot of different parts.

Jazz Review: What are you looking toward in your musical future?

Carla Cook: Continuing to write, being involved in more festivals and concerts, keeping the variety going. I like being a bandleader and being a side person. I’ve been invited to participate in odd things like jingles and soundtracks, and I like all of that. What ever is the next great thing, that’s what I want to do.

Jazz Review: How did you like the Kennedy Center’s new Jazz Club?

Carla Cook: I don’t know how they managed it! There’s a very intimate feel. The ceiling is kind of high, and the walls are not really walls; but it’s a real jazz club it feels wonderful! The audience is attentive and warm.

Jazz Review: Many years from now, what do you want it to say on your musical tombstone?

Carla Cook: "She laughed, she cried, she loved, she sang."

Jazz Review: What are your dreams for your personal future?

Carla Cook: I would like very much to have a really stable kind of life that involves a balanced dose of music, personal life, maybe get a dog and just be healthy and continue to love my family and friends .it’s simple.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Carla Cook
  • Subtitle: MAXJAZZ's Shining Star
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