Bassist Cecil McBee lives in the moment. And during his run with the Cookers, not much has been planned.
“It wasn’t promised, it wasn’t discussed, it wasn’t realized—us being together to this point just happened,” McBee said recently while discussing the band’s 10-year anniversary, which will be marked by the release of its sixth album, Look Out!, on British imprint Gearbox. The seven compositions collected on the new album largely were drawn from past recordings and span almost 50 years; pianist George Cables contributes three tunes and tenor saxophonist Billy Harper adds a pair, as does McBee. In addition to those three players, the group includes altoist Donald Harrison, trumpeters Eddie Henderson and David Weiss, and drummer Billy Hart.
The only things McBee and his bandmates have expected of each other during their time as an ensemble have been excellence, creativity, and the ability to fully realize their collective artistic hopes. And for “Cat’s Out of the Bag,” a new tune by the bassist, the Cookers swing on unison horn lines just knotty enough to stand a bit outside of tradition, while still retaining a studied feel.
“If you get out of the bag,” McBee quipped, “you can maybe express yourself better.”
Closing this latest offering is the other McBee composition on the album, “Mutima,” which initially sprang to life as the title track of his 1974 debut as a leader, released by Strata-East Records and featuring a 10-piece band (including Hart).
“When I arrived in New York [from Detroit], I wanted to be a composer and conduct orchestras,” he recalled. “But given how busy I was immediately—coming and going from studios and performances—I never pursued that. When the chance to record Mutima came about, that gave me the opportunity to totally express who I was.”
There’s a noticeable distinction between the original and the recast version captured here: McBee’s bass sounds woodier, closer to what one might expect from a ’60s Blue Note date, as opposed to the 1974 take’s smooth, almost-electric resonance. Before recording Look Out! during late July 2020, McBee hadn’t been playing too frequently, due to limitations around the pandemic. A longtime musical partner, though, was able to help him reacclimate to the studio—and express who he is now.
“That bass, we’ve been together since 1969, and it supported me at that given moment, as it has over the years,” McBee said. “Good thing that [Weiss] decided to record ‘Mutima’ again, because given the interpretation by the Cookers, you get a totally different expression of what the tune is about today.”