Carla Cook – Dem Bones

Carla CookCarla Cook
Talks about Dem Bones
(MaxJazz – 2001)
by Mark Ruffin

There has never been a Grammy award for best new jazz artist of the year, and probably never will be.  However, the folks who hand out that prize essentially bestowed the honor on singer Carla Cook in 2000, when her debut album, It’s All About Love was nominated for best jazz vocal award.

“Utter shock and complete disbelief,” is how Cook described her condition last year when she got the Grammy news.  “Here I was on Maxjazz, a brand new label, and it was my debut album.  At the time, I was just happy that radio stations were playing it.  It was over the top to get the nomination.”

Now the sultry newcomer has a new release titled Dem Bones, and she’ll be singing selections from it Wednesday at Ravinia’s Bennett Hall and Thursday at the DuSable Museum of African American History.

“I felt no pressure whatsoever,” Cook insisted when asked about the anticipation and expectations of her second album from the press, the record buying public, and her Grammy-voting peers.

Look, my job is to sing,” she said by phone, from her New York apartment.  “It’s up to other people to choose whatever they want to honor you with.  That’s not my place.  My thing is to try to do my best music every time I step on a stage or behind a microphone.”

As the title suggests, Dem Bones features three trombone players, including the legendary Fred Wesley, who gained funk immortality with James Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic’s Horny Horn section.  The singer thinks he has the most famous trombone solo in the history of Black pop music.

“It’s in your head already,” said the singer telepathically projecting Wesley’s break on the JB’s Gonna Have A Funky Good Time.  She laughed before imitating Brown screaming, “Fred!” and then she sang the beginning of the solo.

“A lot of jazz people don’t know that Fred plays jazz,” Cook said of the fact that has escaped a lot of r&b fans too.  “But I selected all three of the trombone players I used because they play the whole gamut.  They can play funk and straight -ahead jazz”

The other trombone players are Tyrone Jefferson and Craig Harris.  Both brass players have played a significant role in the singer’s development.  When she arrived to New York from Detroit a decade ago, Jefferson’s group was among the first to hire her.  She played with him five years before he moved to North Carolina, and then landed in Harris’ band for five years.

“Tyrone used me for lyric support, but sometimes, I acted as a second ‘bone with him, scatting the horn line along with him” Cook explained of the root of the concept of Dem Bones. “It was a coincidence that I ended up with Craig’s group doing the same thing.

“And I love to do it, because the trombone bends like the human voice,” she continued.  “To me they’re very similar instruments.  So when it was time to do a new cd, this idea was right there.  I don’t even call it a concept record.  It’s a very natural thing to me, because I’ve been doing it for many years. I’ve just put it on disc now”

Sound-wise, Dem Bones, is strikingly different from It’s All About Love. But there are similarities.

On each album, the title track is one of two Cook originals, and in both cases, they’re among the most satisfying tracks on the recordings. Each cd has a gospel tune and each has a spectacular arrangement of a classic rock tune.  On her debut, it was Neil Young’s Heart of Gold, on the new record; she does Bobbie Gentry’s Ode To Billie Joe.

Among the most ambitious arrangements on Dem Bones, is the Wesley original titled For The Elders. She first heard the song when she met the great trombonist after Jefferson called her down to North Carolina to sing for his big band.

“The song was written for three trombones, and at the gig, I simply stood in again as the third horn,” she remembered.  “I had such a great time doing it, I just had to record it.”

None of the trombone players will appear with Cook at Ravinia or Dusable.  Neither will Cyrus Chestnut, the young pianist who does such an outstanding job on both of the singer’s albums.  But Chestnut, who a couple of years ago played a dazzling two piano concert at Symphony Center with McCoy Tyner, is coming to town April 7th

The special show, also at Symphony Center will feature the young pianist in duet with the legendary Isaac Hayes.  Chestnut has mixed r&b and straight-ahead jazz before with Anita Baker on his highly recommended self-titled album from 1998.