Carla Cook | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Carla Cook 

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CARLA COOK

Carla Cook's debut album came out only a few months ago, but I'm already tempted to call her one of my favorite jazz singers. Part of Cook's appeal is her reach: on It's All About Love (Maxjazz) she sings Basie, Rodgers and Hart, and Nascimento, but also taps into the music of her native Detroit (Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues") and her experience in gospel choirs ("Hold to God's Unchanging Hand"). She has a real command of every idiom, too, not just eclectic taste in material; she folds those elements into her overall style so that they peek through as delicious accents. The rhythm tracks show off this blend best, especially on her version of Neil Young's pop hymn "Heart of Gold" and on the title track, an original that references Motown and Dionne Warwick. (One of its lyric hooks, "Love is the last revolutionary act," has my vote for the century's epitaph.) And her simple but devastating blues phrases in the middle of Kurt Weill's "September Song"--which doesn't usually lend itself to the blues--tumble out at just the right moment, providing a tart, spicy contrast to the song's bittersweet harmonies. As a scat soloist Cook has done her homework, studying the precision of Ella Fitzgerald and the passion of Sarah Vaughan and applying those lessons to the open-ended improvising of Betty Carter. Some scat vocalists try to distract an audience from their lack of inspiration by soloing on every song, but even if Cook were to scat on two tunes in a row, I'd still want to hear more on the third. On the album she falters only on a few high notes and when she hews to a stiff arrangement too closely. When she relies on her own instincts instead, she's capable of real magic. Thursday, September 23, 8:30 PM, Pops for Champagne, 2934 N. Sheffield; 773-472-1000. Friday, noon, Borders Books & Music, 830 N. Michigan; 312-573-0564. NEIL TESSER

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