The Oct. 2 Athenaeum Jazz at TSRI performance by the supergroup the Cookers lived up to the hype, as seven legends of the tradition delivered a smoking performance in the acoustically superb hall.
Opening with saxophonist Billy Harper’s "Capra Black," a smoldering modal anthem, the band sounded like an expanded, updated version of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Harper's solo was dark and gritty, steeped in the ‘Trane/Rollins continuum, while trumpeter David Weiss' essay burned with a Freddie Hubbard velocity, especially when stoked by the wildfire intensity of Billy Hart’s consistently explosive drumming.
Bassist Cecil McBee’s Latin-flavored, ostinato-driven "Peace Maker" opened to an exploratory muted trumpet solo from Eddie Henderson and a keening alto spot from Donald Harrison while the composer's story toggled between cello-register alacrity and deep moans in the lower register.
Harper’s "Croquet Ballet" burned and strutted with a Blue-Note swagger and yielded gruff curlicues from the composer and a coiling, biting epiphany from Harrison.
The band concluded the first set with Freddie Hubbard's "The Core," beginning with an incredible bass soliloquy from McBee full of luxuriant resonance. The virtuoso pianist George Cables was mighty in support, but hard to hear due to the dominance of the four-horn lineup. Hart, who had basically been soloing the entire tune, took things to another level entirely when the band walked toward the edges of the stage. Opening with three drumsticks in his right hand, Hart hit the drums so hard it's a wonder they didn’t break. It wasn’t all bombast, though. Mr. Hart put on a clinic in dynamics, swing, melodic development and dazzling polyrhythms.
The performance was another excellent production from jazz program coordinator Dan Atkinson and the folks at Athenaeum Jazz.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.