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The Cookers at Birdland

Dorothy Johnson-Laird By

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The Cookers
Birdland
New York, NY
September 17, 2016

On a warm night in New York City The Cookers took the stage. This appearance at Birdland marked the release of their latest CD, The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart (Smoke Session Records, 2016). Each member of the front line is a jazz stalwart, and leaders of their own bands.

Billy Harper is old enough to have played with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers back in the '60s. Eddie Henderson worked as a psychiatrist in the '70s until inspired by Miles Davis he took to playing in a fusion group. David Weiss though younger, has developed his musicianship in New York. He arranged for Freddie Hubbard and other stellar musicians. Sitting in for Donald Harrison was Craig Handy, a younger "post bop" player. The rhythm section consisted of George Cables, Cecil McBee, and normally Billy Hart, but another veteran, Victor Lewis, sat in this night.

This intergenerational group has been playing together for seven years, and they form a strong and versatile team that can stand alone, but also move together. Their sound is rooted in the 1960's with the straight ahead, forceful hard bop sounds of Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, and Freddie Hubbard. Yet their music is not stuck in the '60s. Its sound is contemporary. Once upon a time, these musicians dreamt of playing with the big guys, but now after years of playing together, their music is the focus.

On Saturday night, the four horns stood front and center on the packed stage and one wonders how they even found space to maneuver. All dressed in dapper suits, they played without doubt or hesitation. They were earnest, they were focused, they were excited by their music. The older men in the group were indefatigable. They have withstood the test of time and sharpened their craft over years of playing. They began with the title track of the new CD, The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart, a song that Billy Harper says speaks to both his wild and peaceful soul. The introduction started out slow and steady with Harper's tenor drawing out notes, with eccentric fragments of Mingus-like interjections from the other musicians, and a strong undercurrent from the rhythm section. Then, there was a change of gear as the horns kicked into the theme together. Harper recorded it with Max Roach thirty years ago, but it sounded fresh and new. The tenor sax escaped and ran free, shadowed by the other instruments. Weiss improvised a rapid trumpet solo, horn angled down, and then Cables played an elegant and adroit solo. The Cookers had the audience's attention, and they responded with enthusiastic applause after each solo. The group returned to the main theme, moving together to the end of the piece.

In "Beyond Forever," the group started to heat up the room. This was a steady, driving number. Handy on alto sax was a highlight. He was the post bop player that night, and his solo sounded almost out of control but all the more exciting for it. George Cables was breathtaking to watch in action. His early training in classical music has given him a great technique. But, he swung and was not so taken up in technical prowess to forget soul. There was a true bluesy feel to his piano that rooted the other musicians as they went on their escapades.

Later in "Croquet Ballet," the Cookers coalesced, and the cooking session took shape. This number was a memorable and lyrical waltz—the only one in the set—that Billy Harper and Lee Morgan co-wrote. Cables punctuated his accompanying chords into two per measure, his head bobbing as the piano shapeshifted into a percussive instrument. His spirited playing sanctified the night. The coda was repeated as a motif that the four horns played together, repeating it over and over but gradually dropping notes from the motif until it ended on a single note.

The finale was Hubbard's twelve bar theme "The Core." This was an up-tempo number, Eddie Henderson's fast, punchy solo worked best at this speed. Victor Lewis finally got a chance to solo on drums, the other musicians stepped back to give him space. The audience was actively listening, the ingredients blended well, and they were cooked to perfection.

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