|The Cookers. Photo credit: Vincent Soyez
In an interview, drum great Billy Hart summed up his attitude toward The Cookers succinctly but emphatically: “Believe in us,” he insisted (tacking an expletive onto the end that served to press the point home). Over the course of two albums, The Cookers have given jazz audiences plenty of reason to believe, and their Motéma Music debut, bearing the simple but eloquent title Believe, finds the all-star septet continuing to keep the faith in swinging fashion – their third release, celebrating their fifth anniversary as a working ensemble.
The credentials of these seven musicians are beyond reproach, but simply gathering a group of legends and throwing them into a recording studio isn’t necessarily a recipe for success, points out David Weiss, the band’s founder, chief organizer, and trumpeter.
“A lot of basketball teams throughout the years have signed a group of all-stars and assumed they would win it all because they had assembled the best group of players imaginable and in the end lost because they never really considered that the group would not gel and could not play together,” Weiss points out by way of illustration. “You can’t just put a bunch of names together and expect it to be great. These guys just turned out to be the perfect combination.”
It’s impossible to foresee how any ensemble will gel until the first notes are played, of course, but The Cookers had an inherent advantage in the fact that these legendary jazzmen had all proven themselves integral components in great bands of the past. Harper was a member of groups led by Lee Morgan and Max Roach and served a two-year stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers; trumpeter Eddie Henderson and drummer Billy Hart were both part of Herbie Hancock’s electric Mwandishi ensemble; pianist George Cables played alongside Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper; and bassist Cecil McBee anchored Charles Lloyd’s famed 1960s quartet with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette.
“This is a band,” Weiss says, emphasizing the fact that the unit has cohered into something that transcends its all-star status. “But it’s a band of guys who have been in a lot of the most important bands in the history of this music. They know what it’s like to be in a band and what makes bands great.”
The line-up is completed by Weiss and altoist Craig Handy, players from a later generation who nevertheless follow in their bandmates’ fiery footsteps. The name comes from the Freddie Hubbard’s classic two-volume album Night of the Cookers, classics featuring Lee Morgan, Harold Mabern, James Spaulding, Pete LaRoca, Big Black, and Larry Ridley. These Cookers approach their material in the same sense of adventurous exploration as Hubbard and his ensemble did, generating brilliant music out of seemingly basic elements.
Like their previous two critically acclaimed releases, Cast The First Stone (Plus Loin, 2011) and Warriors (Jazz Legacy Productions, 2010), Believe consists almost entirely of music written by the band members themselves, culled by Weiss from throughout their storied careers.
“Once you get these guys together and really see what they can do,” Weiss says, “you see that they’re not truly being recognized. They have direct ties to all the music that everybody, even younger people, came to this music listening to. They were part of what made jazz what it is and the classic records that attract most people to jazz, the greatest era of this music. Let’s not forget where this thing came from and why it was so good: it’s exciting music played with compassion and conviction and intensity. That’s what these guys are doing.”
It’s that urge, to recognize and celebrate these tremendous artists while they continue to create at the height of their powers, that inspired the band to distill Hart’s directive down to that one single word: Believe.
“It’s a simple word for a philosophy,” Weiss says. “Just believe in something. Care about something. And since you have this record in your hand, believe in this.”