WINNING LINE-UP The Cookers have exceeded expectations — (back row) Cecil McBee, Craig Handy, Billy Harper, and Eddie Henderson, and (front row) George Cables, David Weiss, and Billy Hart.
When does a one-off gimmick turn into a "real" band? On the face of it, the Cookers, who come to Scullers next Thursday, June 16, could easily have become a gimmick that outlived its usefulness — a handful of wily veterans egged on by a couple of younger cats as a way to trade on the collective power of their names and score some gigs. But they've turned into more than that — an imposing band with an impressive book of original tunes, playing hard.
The Cookers is a cross-generational mix with a bias towards heroic progenitors. Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, George Cables, Cecil McBee, and Billy Hart are all on the far side of official retirement age. Trumpeter David Weiss, the band's musical director, is easily 20 years younger than anyone else in the group aside from his North Texas State contemporary, saxophonist Craig Handy. Now working off their second release, Cast the First Stone (Plus Loin), they're here for keeps. (They play the Scullers gig with one substitution — formidable young trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, in for Henderson.)
The band takes its name — and its origins — from The Night of the Cookers, a classic Blue Note disc of the hard-bop era, recorded live at Brooklyn's Club La Marchal in 1965. The two LPs from that session featured just four side-long improvisations. Its two trumpet players, Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan, were still in their 20s and at the height of their powers. With alto saxophonist James Spaulding, pianist Harold Mabern Jr., bassist Larry Ridley, drummer Pete La Roca, and conga-player Big Black, it burns from start to finish. But it's in the fierce sparring of the two brass players (it was essentially Hubbard's band plus Morgan) that the album sustains its reputation.
Weiss — who worked closely with Hubbard in the last decade of the trumpeter's life — put a version of the Cookers together at the request of another Brooklyn club owner in the early '00s. The anniversary of the original Night of the Cookers was coming up, which also happened to coincide closely with Hubbard's birthday. Weiss was able to reconvene Ridley, Spaulding, and La Roca, with the addition of Ronnie Matthews — another hard-bop keyboard stalwart — filling in for Mabern.
"It sounded amazing," recalls Weiss on the phone from his home in New York, "and it was a lot of fun. I was like, 'How do I get to do this again?' " There were a few more club dates around New York and a festival gig here and there. "But like anything, at some point it became, 'What can I really make this into?' It's fun to play Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard's music, but that's not how you get to whatever Holy Grail we're looking for."
Personnel evolved, with various former associates of Hubbard and Morgan coming and going, as well as the trumpeter Charles Tolliver. Eventually, the band settled into its current line-up. Aside from Harper having played in Morgan's last band, and Cables being a regular with Hubbard, there were previous playing connections among everyone. The repertoire would comprise pieces by Harper, Cables, and McBee. "I went through their old records and found the tunes I liked," says Weiss, "and they brought in their own tunes, and eventually we had a pretty good book."
That book includes Harper's driving, Coltrane-tinged hard-bop anthem "Capra Black," the shapely, semi-comic start-stop of Cables's medium-groove "Spookarella," and McBee's classic blues line "Ladybug," as well as (from the new album) his meditative "Peacemaker."
Weiss says that Harper's Capra Black album was a touchstone for him in college. "I listened to it to death." And, originally, he leaned heavily on Harper for the Cookers' sound. "Billy Harper is unbelievable — one of the most intense, impassioned tenor saxophone players ever. I don't think anyone's playing like that now — maybe Sonny Rollins on a good night. But that impassioned, go-for-the-jugular, loud, full, intense. . . ," He pauses. His problem as a bandleader was, "How do we balance this? Like, five straight tunes of Billy Harper and someone's head might explode. And I can't afford a lawsuit!" The solution was to bring in pieces by other band members. McBee is "the most open composer," Weiss says. "He has his foot in all camps at all times," and his credits include important contributions as a composer to the records of Charles Lloyd and Keith Jarrett. And Weiss describes Cables as not only a leavening agent as a composer but "one of the most beautiful pianists out there."
I mention how hard Hart and McBee have been playing lately, in bands like the Cookers and Saxophone Summit (another "supergroup" that's also a real band — fronted by Joe Lovano, Davie Liebman, and Ravi Coltrane). Hart, like McBee, teaches at New England Conservatory and he's always showing up in the bands of young Boston players. "He's got an eternal curiosity," says Weiss. "He wants to try everything. And he's of two opinions: on the one hand he'll complain about working too much, but then a younger band of mine will be playing a $50 gig and he'll ask me why I didn't call him for it."
THE COOKERS | Scullers, DoubleTree Guest Suites Hotel, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston | June 16 @ 8 pm + 10 pm | $28 | 617.562-4111