Thu May 31, 2018

The Cookers (USA)

Billy Harper: tenor saxophone
Donald Harrison: alto saxophone
Eddie Henderson, David Weiss: trumpet
Danny Grissett: piano
Essiet Okon Essiet: bass
Victor Lewis: drums

Hard bop is proving to be the most durable of all jazz styles. Succeeding generations come up with new twists, but the Cookers are a band of seven true veterans who manage to sound fresher and tougher than any of them.

Their unique sound brings with it echoes of the bands they’ve worked with – Max Roach, Herbie Hancock, the Jazz Messengers – not as a deliberate revival but because it’s their natural style. And each has his own strong musical personality. Tenor saxophonist Billy Harper has a wild, passionate streak; pianist George Cables is firmly grounded, with a touch of lyricism; trumpeter Eddie Henderson is excitingly mercurial. Former sidemen, now genuine all-stars. (The Observer)

With the golden age of American jazz receding ever farther, chances to experience it through the few remaining participants are increasingly precious. The Cookers comprises four septuagenarians, one octogenarian and two whippersnappers in their fifties. Together their CVs read like a history of late-20th century straight-ahead jazz. Chances are you have their work in your collection, even if their names are not on the front covers. So much for the PR, but this band is remarkable for other reasons.

For this is not a wearily nostalgic tribute group thrown together as a last hurrah — and they don’t sound like one. The compositions are their own, drawn from their solo albums, and although this is hard bop, it is forward-thinking and packed with stylistic surprises. Most importantly, having played together as a unit since 2010, they are a true working band with the sense of purpose that implies.

Their front line of two trumpets (Eddie Henderson and David Weiss) and two saxes (Donald Harrison on alto and Billy Harper on tenor) gives them the presence of a big band but with the suppleness of a small group. This is immediately felt on the stylistically expansive title track where the horns, playing in unison and contrapuntally, sound like the Jazz Messengers fused with the classic Coltrane quartet.

A lot of that vibe is down to the rhythm section. Their collective age is 231 years, yet they still play like hungry young lions. The drummer Billy Hart navigates tempestuous tempo changes with irrepressible energy; George Cables tricks out his piano work with booming left-hand chords and tinkling arpeggios (check him out on Teule’s Redemption); Cecil McBee’s surreptitious bass lines lock it all together.

Innovative and infectious melodies abound. Blackfoot, composed by Cables, is based on an American Indian trope with breakout sections for blowing. Hart’s Oceans of Time oscillates between ebullient swing and brooding funk. Third Phase, a soulful ballad by McBee, is taken at a gentle lope with exquisite horn voicings to the fore. It’s hard-bop heaven but, happily, still with us here on Earth. (The Times)