Spoleto Review: Jazz greats concoct innovation in Cistern Yard | New
All-star jazz bands usually don’t live up to expectations. Bringing together the best talent can leave an audience lacking perspective and cohesion as egos battle it out on stage.
Not so with jazz supergroup The Cookers, which took to the stage at Cistern Yard on June 5 in the Wells Fargo Jazz series at Spoleto Festival USA.
There is a feeling of relief when you arrive at a concert to see a musician you know well. It’s a feeling of joy if there is musical chemistry, and exhilaration if it’s someone you’d like to tour with. The Cookers have bottled this rare eclair. The septet’s first performance at the festival since the start of the pandemic showed the group’s unity and effortless commitment to innovation.
Founded in 2007, The Cookers went beyond the one-off tribute concert for Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard and have been recording regularly since 2010 with a new record expected in the fall. Trumpeter David Weiss conducts the ensemble which includes drummer Billy Hart, saxophonist Bill Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist George Cables, saxophonist Donald Harrison and bassist Cecil McBee.
Collectively, these musicians have been at the center of the New York jazz scene. Hart and Henderson starred in Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi and alongside Miles Davis. McBee has collaborated with Pharoah Sanders and Bobby Hutcherson, while George Cables has performed with Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon, among others. Harper cut his teeth on the New York scene as an accompanist to Elvin Jones and Max Roach. Harrison, a native of New Orleans, began his career playing with Roy Haynes and Art Blakey and made the connection with modern swing to the roots of New Orleans and Afro-Caribbean music.
While the musicians share collaborations with a dizzying roster of big names in jazz, they also share a passion for composition. The group has become a space to present the extensive composition production of its members.
The show started off with Harper’s “Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart” from the band’s self-titled album in 2016. It was a bit of a heavy start as the sound team took the time to compose the powerful hits of the band. hart snare drum and toms.
At the start of Harper’s solo, the group began to solidify and find the pocket, just in time to showcase Harper’s stunt races turning into spiritual glossolalia. Weiss took over with crisp clarity as he developed his riffs and patterns, while Cables did double duty by holding the groove-based vampire in his left hand to support his own sonic explorations.
As for McBee’s 1989 lineup, “Peacemaker,” the band delivered an introspective yet catchy performance. The solos of Henderson and Harrison were the centerpieces of this tune. Henderson was not overshadowed by the powerful rhythm section but commanded the stage while leading a dialogue with Hart throughout his solo. As Henderson drew a clear arc, Harrison developed a twist solo as he continually peaked, only to set up base camp and keep climbing.
This left the audience guessing, energizing the group with applause throughout Harrison’s solo. Hart stepped out completely, leaving room to hear McBee stretch to the ends of his bass register, while vocalizing to outline the direction of his improvisation. The only downside to the melody was the failed ending, which seemed to require a studio fade in to mask the disorganized conclusion.
The threat of rain made the evening humid and the playing conditions difficult. Weiss commented on the cloud of bugs surrounding his music as he presented the next track, explaining that while the pandemic threatened the livelihoods of many musicians, The Cookers continued to create.
“We created our own bubble… if the NBA could do it, so could we,” Weiss said.
The group’s COVID-19 silver lining was away from the tour to focus on a new album of original compositions. The audience previewed the new album with Cables’ song “The Mystery of Monifa Brown”. Originally written in 2016 to commemorate the birthday of the publicist, critic and host of “Saturday Afternoon Jazz,” this tune features modal pedals with an athletic melody and counter melody. This performance was fresh and shattered the band’s somewhat familiar and expected setlist.
The ensemble ended with “If One Could Only See” by Harper and “The Core” by Hubbard, which referred to the origins of the collective. Harper’s intimate ballad gave Cables the opportunity to weave a tapestry of blues, bop and beyond.
Delaying the gratuity, the band provided ample space for Hart’s solo in the closing tune. At the height of his solo, Harrison was grinning at his colleague’s mastery, testifying to this jazz icon.
The Cookers do more than evoke the jazz giants of yesteryear, and they perform and compose beyond the vague limits of “post-bop”. These musicians provide a glimpse into the re-imagining of jazz as more than a list of giants and more of a story of collaborations while pointing to the horizon.
While audiences may have been a bit lackluster on a sweltering Saturday night, Spoleto’s lineup this year was not. He provided a vision of the roots of jazz, where he has been and where he is going.
Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.