Believe, the latest effort from The Cookers, is their most enjoyable to date — no mean feat, given that their previous track record runs from merely “very good” (Cast the First Stone) to excellent (Warriors). The premise behind the ensemble, assembled by group founder, primary arranger, trumpeter and relative youngster David Weiss, was to emulate the horn-driven instrumentation and hard-bop style of the Night of the Cookers albums from the ’60s, featuring trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan. The septet Weiss assembled is composed of all-star session players, all of whom are good enough to have issued recordings on their own, and five of them yeoman senior citizens who have often played together in various permutations. A working unit since 2007, the Cookers have a depth to their interplay that cannot be faked — the difference between 10-year old and 18-year old whiskey.
The first hat-tip goes to tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, the gospelized former Jazz Messenger. At 69, Harper is somehow playing better than ever: His tone is clear and bottomless, his ideas brandished with black-belt assurance and formidability. His two songs here, the glorious title track and “Quest,” featuring Mingusian horn voicings that make full use of the two-sax, two-trumpet front line, are highlights.
As with the previous two discs, Believe contains one burning cover — in this case, Wayne Shorter’s “Free for All,” which shines a light on the Blue Note legacy through a bonfire of hot solos. Pianist George Cables brings the oddly funky “Ebony Moonbeams,” with an anchor riff reminiscent of War’s “Spill the Wine.” Bassist Cecil McBee contributes the most free-jazz-oriented number, “Tight Squeeze” and a “Temptations(s)” (the only song that hasn’t been previously recorded) that illuminates the indigo-blue reflections that are trumpeter Eddie Henderson’s forte. Hart finishes the collection with “Naaj,” from his 1987 disc Rah, a melodic number bolstered by a solo from alto saxophonist Craig Handy that carries the elation of a victory lap, one that is well earned.