A FEW MINUTES WITH… David Weiss of The Cookers

The Cookers
David Weiss will lead The Cookers at Lake George’s Jazz at the Lake festival on Saturday.

Interview by J Hunter
Photograph by Rudy Lu

David Weiss is the Quentin Tarantino of jazz. That doesn’t mean the NYC-native trumpeter’s recordings resemble a souped-up Sam Peckinpah film (although plenty of Weiss’ creative choices have more guts than a slaughterhouse floor). What I mean is that Weiss has an uncanny ability to put the right people in the right places at the right time, with the result that any concept he envisions will fly like a blue-eyed dragon, complete with the equivalent firepower.

You could find that quality almost 20 years ago in Weiss’ New Jazz Composers Octet, a collection of natural born killers that included future reed masters Myron Walden, Jimmy Greene and Norbert Stachel, pianist Xavier Davis, drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Dwayne Burno (who we lost far too soon to a heart attack in 2013). You can find that quality today in Weiss’ “other” band Point of Departure, an electric/acoustic outfit whose rampant Ropeadope release Wake Up Call is a strong candidate for Top 10 of 2017 honors. Most of all, you can find that quality in The Cookers, a collection of genre mainstays that have gifted us with some of the most vibrant music of the last ten years.

The Cookers first appeared on my radar in 2010, when their first CD Warriors was released on John Lee’s JLP imprint. When Lee announced the creation of JLP, the former Dizzy Gillespie sideman said the label’s output would be split between young lions who had yet to release their first disc as a leader, and old hands who weren’t getting the love they deserved from the major houses. The Cookers clearly fell into the latter category, with most of their members sporting résumés that stretched back over 40 years. I’d found JLP releases from that category to be well within the definition of “meh.” Then I put Warriors on and was greeted with a carreening take on Freddie Hubbard’s “The Core” that repeatedly slammed my head against the wall, leaving me slack-jawed and staggering – and if that track didn’t send me into permanent spasm, the literally epic reboot of Cookers tenorman Billy Harper’s composition “Capra Black” more than did the trick.

Harper splits the arranging duties with Weiss, and their production ranges from well-thought-out member originals (many of whom made their first appearance decades before) to a soaring rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Free For All,” a piece Harper no doubt dealt with while with one of the later iterations of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. But make no mistake: It takes the full village to make The Cookers cook. Their front line of Weiss, Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson and altoist Donald Harrison Jr. pick it up and lay it down better than any band on the menu today, while pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart go far beyond your standard rhythm section to inject their own diabolical musical and lyrical viewpoints into the mix.

I’ve been attending Lake George Arts Project’s Jazz at the Lake festival for 12 years, and I’ve never been as excited about a band on the bill as I am about seeing The Cookers in Shepard Park’s amphitheater this weekend. Weiss was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his preparations to talk about the stunning rise of his creation, as well as a few other subjects:

Q: It’s been 10 years since The Cookers appeared on the scene. Did you think things would turn out as well as they have?

A: I had no idea. At that time, I did a lot of projects like this. Some have more legs then others, and some have a more special place in your heart then others, so it’s nice when these two things go hand in hand and something grows out of the original idea. I never have anything but musical expectations about these sorts of things, so everything is pretty much a surprise to me if things work out success wise. Musically, I think it has exceeded my already pretty high expectations.

Q: How did The Cookers first come together?

A: The Cookers started as a Night of The Cookers reunion/celebration in around 2002 or ‘03. There was a venue in Brooklyn called the Up/Over Jazz Café that wanted to do a reunion and have Freddie Hubbard host it, and since I was working with Freddie at the time, I became involved. The original gig we did had James Spaulding, Pete “LaRoca” Sims, Kiane Zawadi, Jimmy Owens, Virgil Jones, Ronnie Matthews and Larry Ridley. LaRoca and Spaulding sounded particularly amazing, and I talked to them about doing future gigs, and they were open to it. We did a few festivals and clubs and things went well. At the same time, I was also working with the Charles Tolliver Big Band, and that is where I met Billy Harper. The Big Band was getting some attention, but you can’t tour a big band everywhere, so I had the idea of sort of combining the two projects. I would add Tolliver and Harper – and more importantly, bring their compositions into the mix – to Spaulding and LaRoca and create what I thought was a true super band. It didn’t exactly work out, so the personnel was changed a bit. Then finally in 2007, we did a festival with essentially the personnel we have today (except with Craig Handy on alto sax, instead of Donald Harrison, Jr.) and everything just clicked, and I think we all knew that this was something that would grow into something special.

Q: Almost all your band members come out of that same portion of the ‘60s when hard bop was moving beyond its established barriers. Was that a factor in the construction and direction of the band?

A: Yes. No matter the project or the music, what you look for is musicians who always remain open and experimental and bring a certain passion and intensity to the music. It’s all about the approach and keeping things fresh and exciting, and of course these guys all do that.

Q: A lot of the music comes from your bandmates’ past. What’s it been like approaching that music and finding something new to say about it?

A: Hopefully, the arrangements and the four horns bring a certain newness and freshness to the proceedings. Certain tunes have certain qualities to them that keep things fresh for eternity if the right musicians are playing them. We look for tunes that are conducive to the open, somewhat experimental approach we take to the music, and as long as we approach things this way, the music will be timeless.

Q: Do you remember what it was like when you heard the band recorded for the first time?

A: The situation under which that music was recorded, it was not an ideal, comfortable place to record music, so it was difficult to hear the magic at the time it was all going on. It revealed itself more when I began mixing it. If you are uncomfortable when you are recording or don’t like how you are sounding, it is hard to get past that and realize the magic is still happening around you. Fortunately, as I said, when I began mixing it, I heard what we had and started to feel a lot better.

Q: Before The Cookers, you formed the New Jazz Composers Octet, which not only played some bodacious music, but also featured players who are some of the biggest monsters on today’s scene. Can you compare that sort of “young lions” experience with the deep-career vibe of The Cookers?

A: They are two different things that were completely satisfying to two different parts of my psyche – with some overlap, perhaps. Ironically, I listened to some of the New Jazz Composers Octet stuff last night for the first time in a long time and listened to our first CD for the first time in quite a long time; one of the tunes got into my head again and I went to have a listen, and just kept listening. I think I’ve always been a little embarrassed by my first CDs with my groups because they all grew so much as we went along – and we were so young when we made the first recordings; I’m talking about the Octet and my Sextet here. But I was wrong about our first CD. I listened to it last night and, dare I say, I thought it was great. REALLY great! I’m ready to put it up against any debut album of the last 30 years or so. Maybe I have a bigger ego then I thought I had, or I just love the musicians and the music so much – there is a reason I picked these particular guys – but listening to this music again, music we began recording 20 years ago, I found all the tunes to be excellent and thought there was some amazing writing.

When I put that rhythm section together in my cocky youth, I thought I had put together the Herbie, Ron and Tony for the 21st century. I thought they had that much potential, and they really play beautifully on the CD and the interplay between them was amazing. Everyone except me was in their mid 20s at the time and they were writing and playing so well and the group was so tight, we rehearsed to death, and it shows. The ensembles are so tight. We worked so hard on that music, and it showed. We played to the very best of our abilities at the time. So I guess that’s the difference: I was in on the ground floor of something and watched these young musicians grow into very special musicians, and it was great to be a part of it. I wish that band got some attention at the time so we had more of a fighting chance out here. I think they deserved the notoriety. Some record labels sniffed around us at the time but they all said bands don’t sell, no one wanted to sign a band. I found that a little short-sighted, but what can you do? When it came to competitions and blind listening, we always won the prize, got the grant, won the commission and that helped a bit at the time. It confirmed my belief in the group. No one was doing what we were doing then. If I had to do it all over again, I would probably change the name of the band, though, but nothing else.

Q: Dwayne Burno was part of the NJCO and had big roles on some of your other recordings. He was one of my favorite young bass players, and I was gutted when he passed. Since Dwayne was only with us for a relatively short time, could you please explain what he brought to the table, both in concert and in the studio?

A: Dwayne Burno was the consummate musician. He knew everything. He listened to everything, knew his instrument and his role. He elevated any bandstand he was on. He is irreplaceable. There is no other bass player of his generation or younger doing what he did. It’s the hugest musical loss of my life, and I’ve been around some heavy guys. For most of my music, he was it. As I said, I was listening back to all the NJCO stuff and the comment that came into my head the most while listening was, “Damn, Burno, what a bad motherfucker.” He did so much to elevate the music, especially this music where he was given room to do his thing. He understood your music because he knew all your references. He knew where you were coming from, what you wanted and enhanced your music like no other. It hurt to listen to this music a little, knowing I won’t have that again. I actually almost cried a few times.

Q: Billy Harper, George Cables, and Donald Harrison, Jr. have all played at Jazz at the Lake before. Have any of them given you an idea of what to expect?

A: Donald said there was no place to get food late at night there. (Laughs) I think when you reach a certain age and are playing with mostly guys from the same era, you just assume everyone has been everywhere, I think.

The Cookers will perform at Jazz at the Lake in Shepard Park in Lake George at 4:30pm on Saturday (September 16). GO HERE for more information on the entire Jazz at the Lake festival and the complete schedule of festival performances. ALSO: The Cookers will play The Falcon in Marlboro at 8pm on Sunday (September 17). Donations are encouraged…

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