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A Recipe for Creative Breakthroughs With The Cookers

February 18, 2020

Born out of a desire to recapture the magic of two spring nights in 1965 Brooklyn, The Cookers has evolved into a state-of-the-art jazz ensemble showcasing some of the music’s most cogent composers. The blueprint for the band was drawn up at a one-off concert commemorating The Night of the Cookers (Blue Note), a beloved live album featuring the blazing trumpets of Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan. But over the past 13 years and five critically-hailed albums, the septet has taken on a life of its own, earning renown as the preeminent band exploring and extending the heady, loosely defined jazz idiom known as post-bop. At a time when 1960s free jazz pioneers like Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Pharoah Sanders were exploring outside of conventional rhythmic, tonal and harmonic structures the five principal composers for The Cookers were creating new music that stretched rather than abandoned modern jazz forms.

Back in California for performances Thursday, Feb. 20 at Yoshi’s, Feb. 21 at New Roads School’s Moss Theater in Santa Monica, San Diego’s Saville Theatre Feb. 22, and Half Moon Bay’s Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society on Feb. 23, The Cookers is much more than a talent-laden collection of players who’ve shaped jazz’s progressive mainstream since the 1960s. Touring and recording steadily, the group has developed its own sound and identity built on decades of intertwining ties and a repertoire of brilliant original tunes.

“Looking back, there were people who were suspect or cynical, who thought this was just another all-star band,” says trumpeter David Weiss, 55, who organized and continues to run the band. “But five albums and 13 years later they might have a different point of view.” 

The rhythm section is a formidable unit unto itself, featuring pianist George Cables, 75, drummer Billy Hart, 79, and bassist Cecil McBee, the band’s senior master at 84. Trumpeter Eddie Henderson, 79, and tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, 77, hail from the same generation of African-American artists shaped by a roiling era and the struggle for civil rights. Their music reflects the serious-as-death commitment it took to thrive on the jazz scene some five decades ago, when Harper and Cables toured with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Henderson and Hart made history in Herbie Hancock’s band Mwandishi. 

Launched by David Weiss, a player who’s divided his time between leading his own projects and creating situations to showcase his musical heroes, the band originally featured Berkeley-reared Craig Handy on alto sax. He credits Jessica Felix and the Healdsburg Jazz Festival for booking the new Cookers for a debut gig in 2007. In recent years the great New Orleans saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., 59, has held the alto chair. As the nominal head chef, Weiss has made it clear that all the cooks are welcome in the kitchen.

“Besides ‘I’ve got a gig for you,’ my selling this to the guys all along has been that this is your band too,” Weiss says. “When we’re rehearsing a tune they’ve brought in for the first time, it becomes their band. They’re all professionals who are committed to the group, but when the time comes to play one of their tunes their attitude changes. They all have their own process for getting their music to a certain point.”

If there’s a first among equals in The Cookers, it’s Harper, a player who should be far better known. The vast majority of his almost two dozen albums as a leader have been released by Japanese or European labels, most famously 1975’s Black Saint, the record that inaugurated and christened the avant-garde championing Italian label Black Saint (which featured Harper’s unmistakable image in its logo). The last four Cookers albums open with Harper compositions, tunes that double as title tracks, such as 2010’s Cast the First Stone (Plus Loin Music) and 2016’s The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart (Smoke Sessions Records). The man has a knack for vivid titles.

“Sometimes I write the song itself and when I finish, I sense what it feels like,” he says. “If it has a question in it the title might be a question. It comes from what the tune itself sounds like. But then one day it might feel like one thing and the next day it might be different.”

The Houston native started writing tunes in his late teens, though he didn’t have a chance to document his compositions until much later. After gaining some attention at the end of the 1960s with a little-remembered iteration of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers he stood out as a soloist in two of the era’s most exciting large ensembles, performing and recording with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and the Gil Evans Orchestra. But he credits his concurrent tenure with drum maestro Max Roach for changing his approach to writing.

“When you play a particular theme, being an improviser, you’re always creating songs,” Harper says. “Improvising a melody could be the song that you write if you make the decision to develop it. I learned that it was very easy to do that playing with Max, who was a very structured and compositional kind of guy.”

With everyone contributing original pieces, the band builds on post-bop’s generational legacy. Most of The Cookers came of age alongside or just after a cadre of innovators who defined themselves as composers as much as bandleaders. Artists like Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, Joe Henderson, Jackie McLean, and Wayne Shorter were composing reams of tunes they recorded for Blue Note, and Cecil McBee played with them all. These days he’s the unsung writer in The Cookers, a musician who’s far better known for expanding the role of the bass in the 1960s along with virtuosic peers like Richard Davis, Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison.

But McBee has distinguished himself as a composer almost from the start. One of the first tunes of his to appear on an album, “Song of Her,” was first released on Charles Lloyd’s Forest Flower (Atlantic), which captured the tenor saxophonist’s quartet with drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Keith Jarrett at the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival. When the album became a monster hit selling more than a million copies, McBee’s tune was suddenly part of the soundtrack of the emerging counterculture.

“We performed the song from time to time, but given that Forest Flower was a live recording out of Monterey I didn’t expect it to be used on record,” McBee says. “That was really my first composition to be heard.”

He’d distinguished himself as a promising young composer in the 1950s while attending Ohio’s Central State University, a historically black college with an alumni roster that couldn’t help but inspire the young musician (including soprano Leontyne Price, jazz singer Nancy Wilson, and saxophonist/arranger Frank Foster). Hitting the New York scene in 1964, he was at the center of the ferment, though he dreamed of returning to school and learning to conduct. He spent his free time at the piano, working out ideas (a habit that he retains more than half a century later).

“The focus of my musical thoughts and expressions was on composing,” McBee says. “As Roy Haynes used to say, music is my therapy. I would run to the piano and record what I came up with whenever something would happen, negative or positive. I spent a lot of time at the piano expressing myself. I felt it was the way to find a deeper part of myself. A lot of tunes began to emerge.”

Known for composing music that pushes players to their utmost, McBee has a deep book of tunes from which to supply The Cookers. For this tour he’s looking to reintroduce “Mutima,” the title track of his first album under his own name, released on Strata-East in 1974. 

“The music is right next to me and I plan to introduce it to The Cookers,” McBee says. “I’m very proud of that album. I had all that music all ready. It gave me reason to better discover who I was as a performer and composer.”

It’s an investigation that McBee and his colleagues continue to pursue in The Cookers, a band that demonstrates with each performance that the pen is as mighty as the horn.

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED's California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.