Billy Harper, Cecil McBee, George Cables, Eddie Henderson, and Billy Hart all came up in the heady era of the mid '60s. It was a period that found the dimensions of hard bop morphing from their original designs, and each these guys helped facilitate the process. David Weiss and Craig Handy, from a more recent generation and the youngest members of the band, are experts in this forthright lingo as well. Their feisty solos parallel those of their elders. Together, the septet throws a mighty punch.
"There's no doubt that these guys hit it hard," says Weiss. "Unquestionably that's the signature of the band." The trumpeter produced Cast the First Stone; he's also the group's straw boss. "I love Warriors, our previous disc, but some considered it a kinder and gentler Cookers record. This one has a great balance. There's pretty stuff, smart stuff, and tough stuff - a few really rugged pieces in fact. It's one of those records that grabs you from the first note and doesn't let go."
You can hear what he means as saxophonist Harper's title track erupts with a repeated four-note jab and some sensational squall. Indeed, ardor courses through the disc's entire program. Even the more graceful outings, such as bassist McBee's "Peacemaker" and pianist Cables' "Looking For The Light," move forward with a determined stride. From the push of Hart's drums to the vigor of Henderson's trumpet, they've found a unique way to make aggression appealing.
That, too, comes with experience. Each member of the Cookers has spent time leading his own series of groups, and each has a keenly individual sound. But here on First Stone it's the unmistakable power of teamwork that makes the music so commanding.
"That's because this is a real band, not an all-star experiment," says Weiss. "We've really come together. Most of these guys have interacted at some previous point. Eddie and Billy were part of Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi group. George made a record with Cecil and Billy for a Japanese label. Henderson and Hart played in Harper's band for a number of years. There are a lot of dots being connected by them uniting."
Several of the guys have also played with high-vis jazz masters on the way up as well. Billy Harper stood in the front lines of ensembles led by Lee Morgan, Art Blakey and Max Roach. Cecil McBee was a great rhythmic lynchpin in Charles Lloyd's '60s quartet with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette. And the impact of Hancock's electric group mentioned above is starting to be re-appreciated of late. Henderson and Hart were crucial to that band's dynamic.
An enviable rapport and a shared sense of accomplishment are palpable in the performances on First Stone. "These guys have a serious way of looking at things, and I actually think they work with the bar set a bit higher because they come from an era when the bar was higher. When we're riding on the train in Europe, they often tell stories about when they moved to New York and tried to sit in with more established cats. It was a lot tougher back in the day. You really had to be good on your instrument. So there's a strong work ethic in the air here. My generation has a few players who adhere to that, people who came through Art Blakey say, but to some degree it's a thing of the past."
The group takes its name from the Night of the Cookers albums, classic Blue Note discs that were recorded on stage at Brooklyn's Club La Marchal. Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, James Spaulding, Larry Ridley, Harold Mabern and Pete LaRoca were all responsible for some blistering work there in 1965. This edition of the Cookers began with Spaulding in its ranks, but the personal has been somewhat fluid. The 2010 version of the ensemble has been in place for four years now, performing at the Chicago Jazz Festival, the Jerusalem Jazz Festival, Ronnie Scott's in London, and Yoshi's in San Francisco. Weiss believes its chemistry is fully potent.
Harper's intensity is indicative of the way each participant fulfills his role. Weiss reminds that the tenor titan is one of the most fervent horn players at work today. "He's frightening, man. No one brings it like Billy Harper right now. Eddie, too. Pure melody. And he's nailing it. All these guys are. George, Craig, Billy Hart, and Azar Lawrence who we invited to play on a few tracks - their passion is up front at all times. I'm just trying to stay alive on the stand with them."
Ultimately, it's the sound of commitment that bursts from these tunes. When a substitute is occasionally needed, it's somewhat hard to find the right player to blend in. The Cookers are fully bonded these days. "It's true, it all feels really connected at this point," agrees Weiss. "And for the most part, once you've got that feeling intact, you can go anywhere."