The jazz scene isn’t lacking for young, exciting talent. But one of the hottest jazz outfits currently touring is also one of the oldest: the Cookers, a septet that features four octogenarians. In a scene where all-star bands and tribute projects come and go, the progressive hard bop sound of the Cookers has unusual staying power. The group is readying its seventh release (a live album) and maintaining a busy appearance schedule, which includes a pair of shows at Scullers Jazz Club on Saturday.
“I don’t ever recall any discussion of a concept,” recalls bassist and New England Conservatory faculty member Cecil McBee, who at 87 is the elder statesman of this group of elder statesmen. “I had checked out [trumpeter and leader] David Weiss, and then I got a call to play a couple of gigs with him and things just grew without any conversation about the Cookers becoming something or doing something past a certain point. As each person was asked to join, the music became so great, and we were all excited to do what we were doing, that the group developed into something that seems to be pretty well respected today.”
McBee says jazz artists and audiences lose out when groups dissipate or rapidly change personnel. “What’s the purpose of those moments of pronounced creativity when it doesn’t last past a certain point? There are concepts that in my estimation have been cut short before their full development, and maybe the world at large is losing something. So the Cookers’ are a feather in our caps.”
Those caps had a lot of feathers long before the Cookers started. McBee was a key member of bands led by Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, and Keith Jarrett. Pianist George Cables spent several years with Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins. Trumpeter Eddie Henderson appeared on five Herbie Hancock recordings. Tenor saxophonist Billy Harper played with Louis Armstrong and spent several years with Max Roach before recording a series of heralded spiritual jazz LPs in the 1970s. Drummer Billy Hart and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. are NEA Jazz Masters.
When the Cookers started, Weiss was told by some in the industry that a collective band would be a hard sell in a world of jazz festivals and magazine covers that typically feature groups led by a single star. “But I was a rock ’n’ roll kid, so I start bands,” says a laughing Weiss, whose New Jazz Composers Octet was featured on Freddie Hubbard’s final recording. “And all of these guys had been in a million groups that really were bands. When Billy Hart and Eddie were in Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi, that was a band.”
The Cookers have had only one personnel change since their 2010 debut: The addition of Harrison, another musician who knows quite a bit about being in a band. Like Cables and Harper, he was a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. The New Orleans native is also Big Chief of the Congo Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group, and last month he played Boston as a member of the Headhunters.
“When I was in high school I heard Charlie Parker say, ‘If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.’ So I decided then that I would learn how to play all styles and to learn from the masters of all of those styles,” explains Harrison. “Joining the Cookers meant adding another group of great individuals to the pantheon of my understanding, and it also allows me to contribute something from my influences to the group.”
McBee says that playing with the rhythm section of Hart and Cables “is like a dream. There’s nothing they can’t do. To have that kind of expertise and comfort level on a consistent basis is something I haven’t experienced since I was with Charles Lloyd with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette — a group that started in Boston, by the way, when we got Keith out of Berklee and played for a week at the Jazz Workshop.”
Nearly every song in the Cookers’ discography and setlist was composed by one of its members. “That’s the beauty of the Cookers,” says Weiss. “We’re playing their own music in a way that makes it special and unique.”
The Cookers’ last studio album, 2021′s “Look Out,” featured two McBee compositions, including “Mutima,” which revisited the title track from his 1974 album. That record was released on Strata East, a label founded by musicians Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell. Strata East also recorded Harper and Cables, and it has received renewed attention in recent years for playing a key role in the spiritual jazz movement of the 1970s.
“Mutima is a Swahili word that means ‘from the heart.’ Strata East had given me my first chance to record as a leader, so I wanted to make music that was from the heart,” says McBee. “What the Cookers did with ‘Mutima’ was quite interesting. It was a surprise for me to hear it again played at that level of ability, and this time a bit more romance was realized. It’s being expressed even better now than it had been before.”
At Scullers Jazz Club, 400 Soldiers Field Road. March 11 at 7 and 9 p.m. $35-$60. Dinner packages start at $105. 617-562-4111, www.scullersjazz.com