The Cookers, Time and Time Again

Britt Robson

By Britt Robson

on 09.16.14 in Reviews

If you’ve never heard the Cookers, the most authentic hard-bop ensemble in jazz today, “Sir Galahad,” from Time and Time Again, is a wonderful place to start. Composed by tenor saxophonist Billy Harper in an attempt to capture the regal glory of his Great Dane in everything from repose to gallop, the song features Harper and three other horns approximating the dog’s immense mass on the move, while the ace three-piece rhythm section adroitly sketches in the sinew. You don’t need to know that Harper originally wrote the tune for his debut album, Capra Black, back in 1973, or that George Cables, then and now, 41 years later, is beside him on the piano. But throughout the band’s treatment of the song, you hear and feel a depth of experience within the ensemble — masterful, yet still thirsty for creative interplay.

A vast storehouse of original material, occasionally spiked with longstanding affinities

The press materials claim that the seven Cookers collectively have 250 years of experience and more than a thousand recordings on their respective resumes, and that’s probably a low estimate. Formed in 2007, the septet’s fourth disc together marks their first personnel change — Donald Harrison steps in for Craig Handy on alto saxophone — but holds true to the vision of founder and trumpeter David Weiss (at 49, the youngest member) to recapture the magical zest of the classic “Night of the Cookers” albums featuring the likes of Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan from the ’60s.

Each member is a solid composer, resulting in a vast storehouse of original material, occasionally spiked with longstanding affinities. “Reneda,” originally recorded by drummer Billy Hart on his 1987 album, Rah, again features trumpeter Eddie Henderson, Hart’s cohort in the Mwandishi band led by Herbie Hancock in the ’70s. But no previous renditions match the depth or nuance the Cookers can collectively provide. “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” a simple blues written by bassist Cecil McBee for his Unspoken disc in 1997, brims with the molten force of the high-caliber horns, while the rhythm section of Hart, McBee and Cables continually add unexpected pleats and wrinkles to the standard blues template.

There are brand-new tunes, such as McBee’s “Dance of the Invisible Nymph,” which has the horns orbiting around a central vamp from the rhythm section; and “Farewell Mulgrew,” in which Cables writes and plays with penetrating clarity and purpose in honor of his fellow pianist, the late Mulgrew Miller. And there are septuagenarian growth spurts — Harper, now 71, meshes the pulsing of John Coltrane, the nasal tonality of Coleman Hawkins and the gospel hard bop of his Jazz Messengers lineage more impressively than ever before. The Cookers may both honor and embody the old classics, but this music keeps roiling and reinventing itself into tomorrow.