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It’s one thing to listen to the best jazz musicians play. It’s a completely different thing when the best jazz musicians play together as one solid unit. 

Take The Cookers, which covers nearly every subgenre of jazz. The versatile septet will showcase its talents when it makes its Spoleto Festival USA debut on June 5.

With such jazz heavyweights as drummer Billy Hart, saxophonist Billy Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist George Cables, saxophonist Donald Harrison and bassist Cecil McBee in the band, it’s easy to see how The Cookers have earned the title of “supergroup.” Hart and Henderson were sidemen for Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis before establishing themselves as prominent bandleaders. Cables is one of jazz’s most respected composers and performers, recording with the likes of Dexter Gordon and Joe Henderson. McBee has performed with artists ranging from Sam Rivers to Wayne Shorter, while New Orleans-born Harrison made a name for himself as a member of Art Blakey’s and Roy Haynes’s groups.

But it was trumpeter and group composer David Weiss who brought them together in the first place. 

A native of New York City, Weiss began his musical studies at North Texas State University in the early 1980s. Since returning to New York in 1986, Weiss has become involved with several other projects, including the New Jazz Composers Octet and the Point of Departure quintet. But he still finds himself in awe of his Cookers bandmates.

“It’s an ideal situation,” Weiss said via phone interview. “It can be frustrating at times, but I like a situation where I’m always the weakest link or the most inexperienced because there’s so much I can learn from that – and there’s not many guys like that left out here.” 

The group’s origin can be traced back to a one-off gig in 2007. After a few personnel changes, the current lineup took shape and eventually put out five albums, the latest being 2016’s The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart.

The Cookers were scheduled to perform at Spoleto last year, and the June 5 performance will mark its first festival appearance since the COVID-19 pandemic. Like most other musicians, the band was severely affected by the pandemic, as it was just about to head on a lengthy European tour. While the Cookers saw the severity in the situation, they also saw an opportunity to excel even further as musicians.

“In some ways… you want isolation, you want time to work on your craft,” Weiss said. “We were kind of calling each other and comparing notes. You got your dream. You’re locked inside with your horn and your piano.”

While many publications have dubbed the septet as a “bebop” supergroup, Weiss believes that the Cookers’ music is more far-reaching than this label would suggest.

“I think the problem with any coverage is that it limits you,” he said. “It makes you something you’re not. These guys don’t approach music like they’re stuck in something. They’ve spent their whole lives pushing boundaries and pushing music forward, always trying something new. I think any label discounts that.”

Jazz critic Larry Blumenfeld, who is also in charge of Spoleto’s jazz programming, shares Weiss’s opinions on the “bebop” label.

“It’s inaccurate because bebop is a very specific thing,” Blumenfeld said via phone interview. “The generations that are represented in this band, musicians of this caliber, have a breadth of experience. All of the music that these musicians have played, in some way, historically, may have grown out of bebop, but it’s a wide range of music.”

Blumenfeld said he chose the Cookers as one of this year’s Spoleto jazz acts for their experience and their remarkable chemistry onstage.

“It’s wondrous,” Blumenfeld said. “These musicians have played together in different contexts. Some of them came out of bands from different times, so they have a lot of shared and overlapping roots…and they all speak certain languages of bebop and improvisation and blues so fluently.”

Channeling these various languages into the Cookers’ compositions falls upon Weiss as group composer, a responsibility that he is happy to tackle. “They’re part of the fabric of this music,” he says of his bandmates, who have collectively appeared on more than 1,000 albums. “They’re part of what makes music great.”

Patrick Henkels is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.

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