Melding the self-assured authority of Carmen McRae with the pop perspicacity of Natalie Cole, Carla Cook ranks among my favorite contemporary singers. The title of her latest MaxJazz collection, Simply Natural, is doubly appropriate, reflecting Cook's natural talent while reminding us that she remains delightfully free of artifice or affectation. With Cook there is never a wasted gesture. Opening with the self-penned title track, she echoes the raw richness of Stevie Wonder. Shades of Wonder are equally evident in her breezy "Watermelon Man" and the feel-good buoyancy of Oscar Brown's too-rarely recorded "Strong Man." She delivers "Scarborough Fair" with prayerlike solemnity, then shifts into overdrive to keep pace with Cyrus Chestnut's blistering piano on the distinctly Matt Dennis-like "Are You With Me?" She also teams with Chestnut for a lilting treatment of Ellington's "Something 'Bout Believing" that is pure joy. Her "Summer (Estate)" glowers with McRae's rumbling brand of sensual hunger, and "Still Gotta Thing for You," written by Cook a decade ago, pays homage to Aretha Franklin at her most stridently funkadelic. Closing with "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," Cook cooks up a bracingly fresh interpretation. Dismissing the common temptation to sing Dorothy Fields' lyric apologetically, she instead rushes in with guns blazing, eager to shout her feelings from the rooftops. In other words, simply natural.