The Cookers is an all-star band assembled by trumpeter David Weiss (you can read more about him, and the band, in Burning Ambulance #3). The lineup includes: trumpeter Eddie Henderson; tenor saxophonist Billy Harper; flautist/alto saxophonist Craig Handy; pianist George Cables; bassist Cecil McBee; and drummer Billy Hart. That’s a lot of jazz history, from the ’60s to the present. Harper played with Lee Morgan in the trumpeter’s last band before his untimely death, while Henderson and Hart were both members of Herbie Hancock‘s greatest band, Mwandishi. Cables, McBee and Hart recorded as a trio, under the pianist’s banner, on 1991’s Night and Day. McBee’s discography as a sideman includes classic 1960s albums by Jackie McLean, Grachan Moncur III, Wayne Shorter, Alice Coltrane, Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers and many more. Handy has played on several of Weiss’s other albums, and has worked with the Mingus Big Band, John Scofield, Freddie Hubbard and others.
The band takes its name from a 1965 Hubbard album, Night of the Cookers, which might lead listeners to expect hard, bluesy blowing in the style of mid ’60s Blue Note hard bop. But that’s not all that’s on the menu. While there are some forceful, swinging grooves here—the band’s debut, Warriors (buy it from Amazon), opens with a version of Hubbard’s “The Core,” which has a melody that virtually demands lung-tearing solos from any player who approaches the line—there’s just as much artful balladry. There’s also a lot of flute on tracks like “Spookarella” and “Sweet Rita Suite Part 2: Her Soul.” (There is no “Part 1” included on the album.) Flutes don’t swing. “Priestess” is driven by a curiously ’70s piano riff; it sounds like the theme to a sitcom until the horns come in. Indeed, a lot of the playing on Warriors is more informed by ’70s acoustic jazz than the glorious ’60s stuff—the production is slick and commercial, and the massed horns (two trumpets, two saxophones) become bullying sometimes. Still, there’s plenty of bite, particularly when Harper is soloing. He’s willing to go farther out than his bandmates, to extend himself beyond the boundaries the rhythm section is laying down, and that’s a good thing. Also worth noting is the quite beautiful muted solo by one of the trumpet players (I’m not sure whether it’s Weiss or Henderson) on “Ladybugg.”
Cast the First Stone (buy it from Amazon) is a more sprawling, expansive album than Warriors. It begins with the title track, the longest piece in the Cookers catalog at 12:31. Harper introduces it with one of his trademark sharp, fierce solos, but there’s another, third(!) saxophonist on the album—Azar Lawrence, who worked a lot in the early ’70s with McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, and then put in a surprising appearance on Miles Davis‘s Dark Magus, all before the age of 25. He makes his presence felt, too. Still, the band’s general modus remains the same as it was on the debut—expressive blowing by all, with a general hard bop feel plus the slickness of the modern era. Hart’s rhythmic concepts are frequently complex; he breaks the beat up, inserts fills where lesser players would stick to a straight swinging groove, and generally turns tracks like “The Seventh Day” into showcases even while other players are soloing. Cast the First Stone doesn’t have as much of an up-and-down feel as Warriors; almost every piece is midtempo, with only one real ballad (“Peacemaker”) and no sprints. Having proved themselves and made their core concept very clear on the debut, the bandmembers are now stretching out and getting comfortable with each other, and the result is superb jazz. Both these albums are highly recommended.