VOCAL APPROVAL

Following local record label MAXJAZZ's upward trajectory

Butler, who's currently playing to packed audiences in a luxury hotel in Hong Kong, describes a recent phone call from McDonnell to illustrate their professional relationship: "He left a message that said, "Think about what you want to do for your next project.' Mind you, he did not say, "This is what I want you to do....' It means a great deal to me to know that I have that kind of freedom to make my own decisions regarding my recording projects and to know "the boss' respects me enough to allow it. It's almost as if he's writing this blank check and putting it in the palm of my hands! With that kind of allegiance, how can I go wrong?"

Cook, whose debut album, It's All About Love, is a similar fusion of soul, gospel and straight-ahead jazz, echoes these sentiments: "In times past, record companies' concerns with me had been, "Well, is it a jazz record, or is it...?' They wanted me to decide one way or another. Rich took a chance -- well, for me he didn't take a chance, but I guess from an industry standpoint he took a chance -- by allowing me to do all these different kinds of music on one CD. I'm so grateful for that. I think it proves that you can do more than one kind of music and still be "jazz' or considered legitimate." Cook's CD covers a wide stretch of musical terrain, seamlessly incorporating songs as disparate as Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues," Milton Nascimento's bossa nova standard "Canção do Sal" and Kurt Weill's "September Song" -- the last tune embellished by violinist Regina Carter's mournful, sumptuous violin. It's a brave move for a relative unknown, and the fact that Cook makes all these styles work in a traditional-jazz format is a testament to her assured phrasing and understanding of the idiom. According to Cook, whose main influences were Eddie Jefferson, Sarah Vaughan and Miles Davis, her goal is to "sound exactly like Carla" while interpreting any song that strikes her fancy. "Any song I do, I try to find a way to make it mine. "Heart of Gold' can go on the same CD as "Until I Met You,' and the jazz police are not gonna come banging down your door and drag you out and beat you to death. On a radio station or in a music store, there might be a label -- jazz or R&B or whatever -- but in my head that's not what it is. It's all just music to me, and that's what I wanted to put on the CD."

A Detroit native who now lives in Brooklyn, Cook is looking forward to her next St. Louis appearance, when she'll share billing with Butler at a special Jazz at the Bistro concert in April. The two hope to work out a duet or two in addition to their separate 30-minute sets. Cook, who visited St. Louis frequently as a child and still has family here, calls St. Louis one of her favorite cities to play. "When I last played at the Bistro, I had 15-20 family members every night. I felt so much love there. It wasn't just that my family was there -- I'm a Midwesterner. There's a warmth and a friendliness and a sense of normalcy that the Midwest has. I met some really nice people hanging out on the jazz scene -- we had a ball! St. Louis has a special place in my heart."

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