The Cookers at SFJazz

Harry S. Pariser By

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The Cookers
SF Jazz
San Francisco, California
September 26, 2014

When the legendary late jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard joined with saxophonist Lee Morgan and other musicians to perform at Brooklyn's Club La Marchal in April 1975, they produced The Night of the Cookers (Blue Note, 1965), one of history's classic live jazz LPs. Little did anyone involved with the project dream that the name would be taken, years later, for that of a super group playing compositions by Hubbard, Morgan and others.

But that is what happened when jazz legends Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, George Cables, Cecil McBee and Billy Hart teamed up with David Weiss to create the Cookers. To celebrate and promote their CD Time and Time Again (Motema, 2014), they have embarked on a world tour.

Taking the stage at SFJazz in San Francisco, the horn section was front and center with trumpeter Weiss, the junior partner of the ensemble, serving as emcee—commenting, introducing tunes and repeatedly spotlighting the players. While Weiss may be one of the younger members, he is far from unaccomplished, having founded The New Jazz Composers Octet and performed with the likes of Mulgrew Miller, Clifford Jordan, and, of course, Hart.

First up was an oldie but goodie, a revitalized version of Harper's "Capra Black" from the album of the same name (Strata East, 1993). Hart was hot on the sticks, bashing his cymbals, driving the rhythm. The other horn players exited as the stately Billy Harper, his fiery form topped by a silver mane of hair, launched into a solo. The horn players re-entered and chorused before Cables soloed lyrically on piano.

"Peacemaker," a composition by bassist McBee, followed. Henderson electrified the crowd with his solo, and Donald Harrison, the "King of Nouveau Swing" and the band's newest member (and the one who replaced alto saxophonist Craig Handy) soloed searingly on alto. A lovely solo by McBee proved the highlight of the set as his fingers crept up and down the bass. A chorus of horns took the number out.

"Croquet Ballet," a Harper composition featured on The Last Session (Blue Note, 1971), the last date ever recorded by Lee Morgan, followed. Again, Henderson shined on trumpet and Harrison soared on alto. The horns exited to leave a piano trio, featuring a compelling solo by Cables, and then Henderson led the entire horn section in a call-and-response in which the same riff was played and then mimicked while Hart sat meditatively hunched with arms folded.

Weiss, ever the talkative emcee, declaimed that while Time and Time Again "is our new CD, we had not played one tune from it yet. We are going to play another tune, this one by Freddie Hubbard." "The Core," a composition first featured on Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers' Free for All (Blue Note, 1964). Hubbard intended it as both homage to CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) as well as testimony to his belief that the tune "got at some of the core of jazz—the basic feelings and rhythms that are at the foundation of music." Cecil McBee again soloed exquisitely before Hart's drums propelled the entire horn section.

The end of the break saw the audience back in their seats for an oldie but goodie version of Harper's "Sir Galahad," resurrected and reformatted. Following the usual vigorous and spellbinding Harper solo, Weiss took his first trumpet solo of the evening.

"Slipping and Sliding," Weiss explained, was a McBee composition with a "blues twist" to it. The title track to a CD (Sound Hills 1994) by Leaders, "Slipping And Sliding" featured searing solos from Henderson and Harrison on alto. A McBee bass solo ended with a flourish.

Cables led into an extended solo for his "Farewell Mulgrew," a memorial to the incomparable pianist Mulgrew Miller. Harold Mabern's "The Chief" followed. Harper raged on tenor and Hart exhibited his tight control over his drum kit with some lovely cymbal work.

The band exited; the doors shut behind them; and then they returned to launch into "The Priestess," a "jazz classic by Billy Harper," one which is also featured on the new CD. Weiss soloed wonderfully on trumpet, Cables stretched out, and Hart's driving drums and McBee's bowing came to a finale which was greeted with a standing ovation. Afterward, this writer heard an audience member tell Weiss "You guys are the essence of jazz."

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