The Cookers come to conquer the San Francisco Bay

Veteran Band Looks to Revive Classic Jazz

By Ken Vermes

August 6, 2013

Coming to Yoshi’s Oakland for two nights, August 15 and 16, is a very special band. They are called “The Cookers”, and this fan is going to try to be there for two nights. Seeing a band like this at the beautiful Oakland club is going to be a spirited and intimate night in a very special place. For some of the band members, it is a coming home. And for all of them, it is a chance to demonstrate a powerful music that some say represents the highest moment of modern jazz. These are not words to use lightly.
What this band is, what they represent, is something that is pretty easy to explain. But the true test of any band these days is not the hype or the press. Neither is it the CD of the artwork. The bottom line is what a band delivers live. And “The Cookers” have a special legacy to bring. In a series of brief interviews with three members of this group, Eddie Henderson, Billy Harper and David Weiss, I just scratched the surface of all that could be said about this very special conjunction of musical and cultural forces in the history of the music called jazz.
What constitutes “jazz,” and who the true masters of the music are, is something that critics and fans endlessly debate. But one thing is certain; some of the greatest players are ignored by the press at the very moment of their greatest playing. This is something “The Cookers” is ready to address. As Eddie Henderson told it, the band emerged out of a performance at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. It also had various permutations to the point today, when it has settled on a true all-star line-up. The name of the band comes from a 1965 Blue Note Album by the late, great Freddie Hubbard titled, “Night of the Cookers, Live at Club La Marchal.” It is very unusual for a band to be based on one recording. But what the band is referring to is really a whole slew of recordings that emerged from the immediate impact of the style called Bop that was invented and played by musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, during and immediately following the Second World War This style broke from the earlier "swing” style by using complex harmonies and rhythms that seemed to mirror everything from abstract art to the frenetic energy of modern urban life. Following this explosive revolution in sound, the music splintered into different approaches, but the cool and beautiful playing of a group of unique and very special players found a home at Blue Note records. These recording are considered by some among the greatest in the history of music.
That is the tradition that directly led to the formation of “The Cookers.” All the members, including those mentioned and George Cables on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Billy Hart on drums, have deep roots in this music. Houston native Billy Harper is a fantastic tenor player right out of the Texas soil, who grew up when Texas seemed awash in bluesy, roaring sax players like Arrnet Cobb, Ornette Coleman, Illinois Jacquet and David Fathead Newman. Billy’s musical journey includes performing with Thad Jones, Mel Lewis as well as McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones to name a few. Seeing this master player is a very special experience for those that know his story and sound. But it is only one part of this group of star players.
Eddie Henderson developed his music in California before heading to New York and recording Blue Note albums of his own and becoming the go to trumpet player in big bands like those of the Mingus big band and Gerald Wilson group. For him, coming to Yoshi’s is a true home coming. Needless to say, he feels a deep connection to so many of those who are sure to be in the audience. Trumpeter and arranger David Weiss is the youngest member of the group, and the glue that holds things together. His knowledge of the music of these masters is astounding. And his enthusiasm and excitement about being in such august company is heartfelt and deep. David not only acts as the business manager of the group but does arranging, PR, and many other tasks to keep it rolling. His enthusiasm for the players in the band and their mission to uphold the highest standards of musicality and originality is a powerful argument for a band of music masters to excel. He is very dismissive of the popular atmosphere in jazz and believes that these players represent the true and tried excellence that the best jazz is supposed to represent.
I asked Harper whether there was a competitive spirit in the group. Billy dismissed that notion, but stated that there was a good sense of having to measure up, like at a regular jam session with the heaviest players. Billy, who has spent time in Europe, represents a deep sense of the Avant Garde that was often present in the Blue Note recordings. And as a listener and fan, Harper seems thrilled of being in the company of players who were part of so much great music in the 60’s and beyond. But this is no nostalgia act. The music on the table is as fresh as a home cooked meal. These musicians work very hard to insure that risk, originality, and as Billy said, playing on the edge, is a big part of the musical agenda.
In August, Bay area fans will have a special opportunity to experience The Cookers band. This weekend they have two performances at the San Jose Jazz Festival. The Yoshi’s Oakland dates follow. It is very possible to argue, that this one group is among the best small group bands in the country if not the world. And if you do not have the time to see all of the festival acts playing this summer, “The Cookers” presents a festival, all in one place and all at the same time. If you see one show, we recommend this one. If you just have to see them more than once, join the club. Sometimes it takes a life time to produce one perfect moment. For these jazz warriors, each moment will surely shine.

The Cookers appear at Yoshi’s Oakland August 15 and 16.

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