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Kenneka Cook: Jazz, Experimental, Multigenre 

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Ash Daniel

Layer-by-layer, loop-by-loop, singer Kenneka Cook is building a career.

Alone onstage, in dramatic fashion she records the architecture of short, repeated musical phrases. When the backing architecture is complete, she sings over the top: sometimes standards, sometimes sharply focused, often philosophical originals — but always with a loose, jazz-inflected sense of time.

Singing solo sets isn’t her only gig. She’s also a team player in two of the most creative bands in town, Mikrowaves and Pressure Fit. But the intimacy of her one-woman show displays her gifts with greatest clarity.

Cook started singing after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in criminal justice. “Music took over my life,” she says. “You have to choose the path the universe wants you to go.”

She was inspired to start looping after seeing a Reggie Watts video, she says: “I wanted to see if I could do that with a jazz standard, starting with ‘Night and Day.’ Billie Holiday has always been my absolute favorite. Through her I discovered Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan.”

Like all artistic disciplines, looping comes with some constraints. With eight to 10 layers of foundation, the song can’t change key, or have sudden shifts in dynamics.

“I never know when I am done with a song,” Cook says. “In my own stuff, the ideas often happen in my sleep. I have to get up and record it, or write it down. It all builds over time.”

Cook has found support in the Richmond music scene, not only from male musicians but also her female peers. When she first met more established singers like Samantha Reed and Buttafly Vazquez, there was no hint of rivalry.

“They said ‘I love your voice,’ and I said, ‘I can’t believe you are saying that because I love your voice too.’”

While things come together, she has a day job as a nanny. And she has the serious fun of playing with Eddie Pendergast’s Microwaves, an eclectic rock-tinged party band including the veteran players of salsa pioneers Bio Ritmo. Or with No BS Brass trombonist Reginald Chapman’s whip-smart modern jazz, classical, hip-hop ensemble Pressure Fit. As with her looping, it is a solid foundation for Cook to improvise over.

What’s next? “This is city life,” Cook says. “Something crazy is bound to happen.”

Kenneka Cook appears with the Mikrowaves on April 21 at Savory Grain and April 27 at Flora. She appears with Pressure Fit on April 25 at the Camel and April 29 at Crossroads.

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