Graded on a Curve:
The Cookers,
Look Out!

Choosing The Cookers as a band name establishes a level of self-awareness on the part of the participating instrumentalists. After five albums, it’s clear the moniker has been widely accepted for its accuracy. On Look Out!, trumpeters Eddie Henderson and David Weiss (who also produced), saxophonists Billy Harper (tenor) and Donald Harrison (alto), pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart have prepared another cuisine-level platter that’s available digitally, on CD and on 2LP with three sides of music and one with an etching of the band members’ signatures. Recorded at Van Gelder Studio, it’s out now via Gearbox.

If The Cookers’ handle is collectively self-aware, it’s also knowledgeable of jazz history, referencing The Night of the Cookers, a wonderful live set that was released in two volumes in 1965-’66. I say it’s a well-informed choice because those LPs featured a septet with two trumpeters, the credited leader Hubbard and Lee Morgan, with the lineup completed by saxophonist-flautist James Spaulding, pianist Harold Mabern Jr., bassist Larry Ridley, drummer Pete “La Roca” Simms, and the conga specialist Danny “Big Black” Rey.

The band that made Look Out! is easily in the same league as the one documented on The Night of the Cookers, and with a few direct connections, as Billy Harper was in Morgan’s final band, notably heard on The Last Session, issued in 1971. Also, George Cables is heard on a string of Freddie Hubbard’s ’70s albums for Columbia, while McBee is in the band for Double Take, a 1985 set co-led by Hubbard and trumpeter Woody Shaw.

More importantly, these credits aren’t even career highs, as Harper recorded with Louis Armstrong, Max Roach, Gil Evans, and Randy Weston and Henderson cut albums with Gary Bartz, Kenny Barron, and Herbie Hancock (he’s on Mwandishi, Sextant and more). Cables is well-known for his extensive work with Art Pepper, but he was also quite prolific with Bobby Hutcherson and additionally recorded with Sonny Rollins and Roy Haynes. McBee lent propulsive foundation to LPs by Wayne Shorter, Jackie McLean, Andrew Hill, and a handful by Charles Lloyd.

This is merely the tip of the iceberg, as all four men have recorded extensively as leaders. And McBee was also a member of The Leaders, an advanced bop avant-tinged supergroup of evolving membership that began in the 1980s and, after a hiatus, cut the CD Spirits Alike in 2007, bringing Henderson and Billy Hart into the fold alongside McBee, saxophonists Chico Freeman and Bobby Watson, and pianist Fred Harris. It can be considered as a loose precursor of sorts to The Cookers, who under Weiss’ organizational guidance debuted with Warriors in 2010.

But the reality is that these guys have been playing on each other’s records for decades, including Hart, who completes The Cookers’ older generation. He’s heard on McBee’s Mutima (’74) and Flying Out (’78), Harper’s Soran-Bushi, B.H. (’78), Cables’ Quiet Fire (’94), and a bunch by Henderson including Realization and Inside Out (both ’73) and Sunburst (’76), with the trumpeter returning the favor on two of Hart’s albums, Enchance (’77) and Rah (’88).

Unsurprising for a drummer of such skill and versatility, Hart’s contribution to the records of non-Cookers is extensive. They include Miles Davis’ On the Corner, Pharoah Sanders’ Black Unity, Bennie Maupin’s Jewel in the Lotus, and a string of Hancock’s albums (alongside Henderson). That’s just a sampling from the 1970s.

Weiss and Harrison, the two younger members of The Cookers, add a deeper level of unity, specifically to the hard-bop model as exemplified by drummer and bandleader Art Blakey, as four of the seven Cookers played in his band. Hart (for an obvious reason) and McBee didn’t, and neither did Weiss, though the trumpeter, who is also an arranger and bandleader in numerous contexts, did organize a live band for a run at the NYC club Iridium that focused on the relatively obscure 1963 album for Colpix, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers Play Selections From the New Musical Golden Boy.

I’ve come across a few descriptions of Weiss as the leader of The Cookers, which doesn’t sit right with me for a couple reasons. The first is that their latest album features all originals by the participants, but none by Weiss. Secondly, they named themselves The Cookers for a reason. But with this said, the opening theme of Look Out!’s first track, Cables’ “The Mystery of Monifa Brown,” does radiate an almost, but not quite Big Band feel.

Perhaps I say it’s a not quite Big Band feel because the group avoids the sort of blatant charts worship that afflicts so much (too much) of the contempo large group jazz stuff I’ve heard. Instead, the opening theme is just a little fuller than usual. It’s a not uncommon vibe with ensembles that are larger than a quintet, and it got me to thinking about Golden Boy, with its 11-piece band (an unusual size for Blakey), and also that six of the seven selections on Look Out! were indeed arranged by Weiss, who also delivers a concise solo in between lively excursions from Harrison and Cables.

Ultimately, Look Out! is a contemporary personification of hard bop/ post-bop ingenuity and vigor (it’s all there in that exclamation point), and with a studio-based sense of economy. None of the seven selections bypass ten minutes in length (unlike The Night of the Cookers volumes, which offer four side-long numbers). McBee’s “Cats Out of the Bag” gets it done in exactly five minutes. Also, no track has more than three solo features.

Interestingly, McBee and Hart don’t solo at all, which can be considered as resistance to hard bop/ post-bop formula as the band prefers to keep things exciting. There are also no ballads, which fits the Cookers’ modus operandi. That’s not to suggest that’s it’s all torrid pyrotechnics, as Harper’s “Destiny is Yours” is taken at a robust mid-tempo.

Harper gets to strut his post-Coltrane stuff during his solo, but please understand that nowhere on Look Out! does the playing drift into outside realms. To some, this might insinuate an unexceptional formalist exercise, but to The Cookers’ advantage is an abundance of imagination in the writing, the arranging and the execution, all elements accounted for in Harper’s “Somalia,” which features a vocal chant accompanying the theme.

The solos by Harper and Weiss in “Somalia” are amongst the album’s best, but it’s Cables who really shines, both in his own solo and throughout the track, sporting an angular groove that’s a little reminiscent of LaMont Johnson’s playing on Jackie McLean’s terrific and underheard late ’60s cut “Hipnosis” (and with maybe a little McCoy Tyner thrown in).

Cables’ “AKA Reggie” slows the tempo again but with panache as Harrison shines in an extended spotlight. It’s in Cables’ “Traveling Lady” that Hart and McBee really get to strut their stuff, though Henderson’s opening solo is a treat. Like Look Out!’s first couple tracks, “Traveling Lady” extends a bit, as does McBee’s “Multima” in the closing spot. That one also reestablishes a little of that not-quite Big Band action in its theme, solidifying another seamless outing for probably the finest hard-bop aggregation that’s currently extant. If there’s a finer example, I’d love to hear them.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text