Spoleto Festival USA continued its Wells Fargo Jazz Series with a stellar performance by The Cookers on June 6. Taking the stage in front of the College of Charleston’s Randolph Hall, the jazz septet showcased its versatility and assert its status as a collective of the genre’s heavy-hitters.
The Cookers consists of drummer Billy Hart, saxophonist Billy Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist George Cables, saxophonist Donald Harrison, bassist Cecil McBee and trumpeter and group composer David Weiss. Weiss corralled the supergroup, and since 2007 they’ve been playing together, composing music and releasing albums.
Their approximately 90-minute set featured five songs — some from their most recent album, 2016’s The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart — with the most upbeat tunes acting as the show’s bookends.
The thing about collectives — in any genre — is that it doesn’t work out if each member doesn’t know their role and deliver accordingly. From the band’s first song, the album’s title track, it was evident that professionalism and collaboration came as second nature to The Cookers. Everyone knew their role and played with ease. Like professional athletes coming off the bench, Harper, Henderson, Harrison and Weiss rotated to give their fellow trumpet or saxophone players the spotlight during improvised solos.
But while the solos provided free reign for each musician, at some points the four frontmen were sonically overpowered by the bass, piano and drums. They also seemed to have had some difficulties playing over the course of the buggy evening and loss of breath trying to hold some of the longer notes. Yet, these issues proved to be minuscule in the grand scheme of the performance as the solos seemed to be the highlight of the night.
A personal favorite of mine was their performance of “If One Could Only See.” The 10-minute slow ballad, composed by Harper, is the perfect soundtrack to accompany a newlywed couple’s first dance. The trumpets and piano shine, and hearing it for the first time created a small and intimate atmosphere similar to what I imagine a late-night jazz lounge would feel like.
The Cookers also performed Cables’ tune, “The Mystery of Monifa Brown.” With lows and highs, the song isn’t as ominous as its title suggests. Rather, it sounds like a story of determination and feels almost as if the piano is the narrator.
The Cookers have been described by other publications as a “bebop supergroup.” Yet Weiss believes this descriptor is limiting considering each artist has dedicated their lives to pushing boundaries. With over 250 years of combined experience in the jazz world and having been a part of over 1,000 total recordings, the members bring a sense of individuality that when put together, creates a sound unfit for just one label.
Cydney Lee is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.