With Experience on their Side, The Cookers Heat Up Dizzy’s

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The Cookers members Billy Harper, David Weiss and Eddie Henderson perform at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on May 6.

(Photo: Mars Breslow)

If you’ve heard the five CDs recorded by veteran jazz septet The Cookers, you know these seasoned pros deliver fire at will and with virtuosity to spare. But no digital recording could prepare you for the level of impassioned soul and blazing intent the group unleashed at their recent Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola performance.

The Cookers’ lineup has changed ever so slightly through the years, reflected most prominently in the alto saxophone position. The group’s 2016 release, The Call Of The Wild And Peaceful Heart (Smoke Sessions), featured Billy Harper on tenor sax; Eddie Henderson and David Weiss on trumpets; Donald Harrison on alto sax; George Cables on piano; Cecil McBee on bass and Billy Hart on drums. At Dizzy’s on May 6, the eminent Jaleel Shaw replaced Harrison on alto, who had replaced Craig Handy on earlier Cookers recordings.

There’s no confusing these veteran musicians for young lions. But of all the small-ensemble shows I’ve attended at Dizzy’s, none has even approached the collective degree of professionalism, precision, endurance, technique or all-out spirit personified by The Cookers.

This is not just any select group of master jazz musicians. The Cookers represent an affinity, identity and cohesion rare for any group, whether its members are in their twenties or seventies. The Cookers’ music definitely recalls hard-bop’s heyday, but with Harper and Hart constantly injecting avant-garde punctuations, the dynamics quickly shift from Cadillac-cruising to Indianapolis 500 scorch-and-burn.

Of particular note was The Cookers’ front line. I can think of no other two trumpet, tenor and alto combination currently working (perhaps I don’t get out often enough), and the septet worked that instrumentation for all it was worth. Playing lush harmonies, Harper, Weiss, Henderson and Shaw created a serious orchestral spread, song after song.

The first number, “Time And Again” (the title track from their 2014 album), began simply enough, a casual, relaxed melody framed by a masterful 9/4 swing groove. But once the melody was out of the way, Harper punished his tenor, with a screaming, funky solo that ricocheted off Dizzy’s walls. Hart, playing more forcefully than I’ve ever witnessed, personified a Tony Williams approach, his drums and cymbals speaking loudly with a powerful, rhythmic assault that provided endless thrills. John Scofield once titled an album Loud Jazz, but The Cookers gave that term new meaning.

Drawing on their considerable discography, The Cookers performed McBee’s “Peacemaker,” from their 2011 release, Cast The First Stone. An Afro-Cuban ballad recalling Duke Pearson, the song allowed Henderson to create a dulcet solo, followed by the remarkable Shaw, whose solo here and in other songs was so fully formed, logical and superb as to appear composed. Shaw’s palette was wide, deep and revelatory, solo after solo shooting off sparks.

Harper’s “Croquet Ballet” (also from Cast The First Stone) followed, its 3/4 pulse providing a resting point in the set. The follow-up tune enforced The Cookers’ “loud jazz” approach once more, Hart fluttering his cymbals, kicking his bass drum and generally wreaking havoc as Weiss rode aloft.

Cables’ lovely “Farewell Mulgrew” was positively glistening, and The Cookers closed with Freddie Hubbard’s “The Core” (which was covered on the group’s 2010 release, Warriors). The night’s performance as a whole confirmed their cred as a take-no-prisoners-septet with fire in their bellies and blood left on the floor, but collectively, The Cookers—with Harper and Hart leading the charge—performed the uptempo “The Core” with glee and energy.

If The Cookers’ jazz can be considered a contact sport, yet one with regular moments of inspired artistry and brilliance, the septet issued a challenge, unspoken, but nonetheless emphatic: Jazz may be at a low point as far as sales are concerned, but Harper, Hart, Henderson, Cables, Shaw, Weiss and McBee attest to the music’s timeless appeal. DB



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