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What makes a championship team?" asks trumpeter David Weiss. "It's not the best player in the world playing his own game. It's not everybody trying to get 35 points a night.
Weiss says a similar concept applies to the Cookers, a group of jazz all-stars he put together five years ago that includes a group of seasoned veterans, some of whom have more than five decades of experience. Saxophonist Billy Harper, for example, was a member of groups led by Lee Morgan and Max Roach and did a two-year stint with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Then there's trumpeter Eddie Henderson and drummer Billy Hart, who were both part of Herbie Hancock's electric Mwandishi ensemble. Pianist George Cables, meanwhile, played with Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper, and bassist Cecil McBee was part of Charles Lloyd's famed 1960s quartet with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette.
"I think a lot of it with these guys is that they've been in some of the most important bands and they know what it's like to be in a band," declares Weiss. "They know how to bring out the best of their talents and still function in this kind of circumstance. These guys have all been in some heavy bands where everybody's talent shines through, but they know how to make it sound like a band, too."
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While McBee, Harper, Hart, Henderson and Cables are all in their late sixties or seventies, Weiss and alto-sax player Craig Handy, both in their late forties, are from a different generation. Weiss says they're younger by a few years than a generation that included players such as Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Garrett and Wallace Roney.
"That's the last generation that kind of came up with enough of that going on that they knew what it's supposed to be," Weiss says. "We got a taste of it. We were a little late to that party — we kind of fell between that and the real young-lions thing, where Joshua Redman and Roy Hargrove and those guys came out of nowhere. So we kind of slipped through the cracks of that, but we caught enough of it, and Craig got a little bit of time with Art Blakey."
Weiss says that he and Handy caught enough of the mentality of that period during which players moved to New York and tried to get an apprenticeship of sorts with Blakey or Horace Silver. "It was never like, 'I'm coming here to sign to Blue Note when I'm 21,'" recalls Weiss. "It was more about getting experience and getting with those people. So I think me and Craig both have that mentality a bit."
While the Cookers have been around for five years and have released three albums — including the outstanding, just-issued Believe, which features songs written by Harper, Hart, McBee and Cables — the idea for the combo goes back about a decade, when the owner of the now-defunct Up Over Jazz Cafe in Brooklyn approached Weiss about putting together a celebration of Freddie Hubbard's 1965 live album Night of the Cookers, as well as a Hubbard birthday celebration, since both events happened in April. Weiss, who was working with Hubbard at the time as part of an eight-year stint, rounded up Pete LaRoca, James Spaulding and Larry Ridley, who all played on Night of the Cookers. Between the sets, Night of the Cookers was played, and Weiss noticed that the guys were playing with a energy and passion similar to what was on the album.
"I said, 'Okay, let me see if I can do more of this,'" Weiss remembers. "'Let me try and do something with this.' So I tried to do a few more Night of the Cookers-type concerts built around LaRoca and Spaulding. We did a few of those, and they were a lot of fun. And we got various personnel, including some of the guys who are in the Cookers now.
"But at some point," he goes on, "you kind of look at things and go, 'All right, well, we're just doing Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard music.' It's a lot of fun, but it doesn't really seem to be going anywhere. Some things are amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Some things are amazing one-week experiences. Some things morph into a great band that's always going to do something, and if this was to go on further, it would have to be that. And it didn't seem like playing somebody else's music was a way to go for that."
Around that time, Weiss adds, he was playing in trumpeter Charles Tolliver's big band with Harper and thought, "Why don't I somehow combine these? Why don't I get Charles Tolliver and Billy Harper in this thing and play their tunes, because they're both great writers and write really expansive stuff that would be interesting to play night after night."
In 2007, Tolliver had just gotten on Blue Note and released With Love; Weiss says the trumpeter wanted to focus on that, so Henderson was brought in. That same year, the Cookers did a gig with the lineup they have now, and, according to Weiss, it just clicked: "Everybody liked each other, and the music was there. I was like, 'Wow, this is it. Here it is. Let's do something.' So we just started getting some more work and recording, and here it is five years later and we're still at it.