The Cookers, Ronnie Scott’s London

The Cookers are an all-star band of seasoned New York modernists who name themselves after a Blue Note-recorded mid-60s jam session, when modernism, modality and free jazz met on equal terms.

Then the music was experimental, optimistic and tinged with rage, but at this gig, the four horns developed the long themes and complex structures with a knowing, technical edge. Cross-rhythms jittered, tensions rarely resolved and the idiosyncratic sat next to the common stock. And as each soloist navigated the treacherous waters, with a handful of themes spread over two long sets, this intense and thought-provoking gig increasingly seemed to capture the temper of the times.

As on the recording there are two contrasting trumpeters – at this gig Dave Weiss, poised and technical; Eddie Henderson, urbane and lustrous-toned – a fiery saxophonist – Billy Harper on tenor sax – and a pulsating piano-led rhythm section. The Cookers add an extra horn, alto-saxophonist Craig Handy, and draw on a repertoire of tightly arranged in-style originals that sit well beside the occasional cover.

The first set opened with the four horns swelling over an ominous pedal, morphed to a storytelling theme and threw in a few lines of bop. With a quick burst of improv to round things off, Billy Harper’s “Capra Black” neatly displayed the band’s stylistic palette in one fell swoop, underpinning each segment with firm rhythms and harmonies to bite into. In less experienced hands, structures like this become hurdles to climb, but here they were landscapes to explore, with each musician taking a different path.

Cecil McBee’s “The Peacemaker” followed, the rhythm section spacious around the bassist’s off-kilter thrums. As before, the theme evolved through mood and motif, and pensive and purposeful solos were urged on by riffs and ominous sustains. Later, angular lines decelerated to a smoky blues, three beats were built into a concerto and a sweet a cappella riff slowly lost notes on the nod – it ended as a single short stab. The finale covered Freddy Hubbard’s up-tempo “Free for All”, an abrasive climax of exploding modes, jagged runs and a melodic thrash from drummer Billy Hart.

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