Few all-star groups are also working bands. The personnel of the Cookers has been stable for half a decade. They play 30 to 40 gigs a year and have now made three albums. They are Billy Harper (tenor saxophone), Craig Handy (alto saxophone), Eddie Henderson (trumpet), George Cables (piano), Cecil McBee (bass) and Billy Hart (drums). David Weiss, who conceived, organized and administers this project, also plays trumpet and handles most of the arrangements.
These are major players who have not quite become household names. Perhaps that is why, for all their solo firepower, there is a selflessness in their dedication to the ensemble cause. Most of the tunes are composed by Harper, Cables or McBee and were first recorded 20 to 40 years ago. The first two albums contained their strongest songs, but the pieces on Believe are interesting because they are more open and the execution is edgier. Harper’s “Believe, For It Is True” is portentous. The start-and-stop tension is released when its composer blasts in for a raw, caterwauling solo. McBee’s asymmetrical “Tight Squeeze” provokes jagged responses from Harper, Weiss and Hart. Even a cooler, more lyrical piece like Cables’ “But He Knows” inspires a hot, fierce reaction from Handy.
The Cookers are hard-wired into a golden era of jazz history, but they use tradition as a foundation for creative fury in the present moment. Wayne Shorter’s “Free for All” is the only tune not written by a member of the band. For 12 minutes, the solos are passionate mountaintop calls to the multitudes. After Harper’s guttural, commanding summons and Handy’s singing cries, Hart breaks time loose and scatters it around as only Hart can. All the while, “Free for All” is tied together by the recurrent explosive riffs of Weiss’ arrangement.