Les McCann Is One of the Foremost Avatars of Soul Jazz, and a New Release Offers Fresh Insights Into His Music

A great addition to the pianist’s catalog, consisting of a three-CD package of live recordings made at two clubs on two coasts in 1966 and the year after.

Photo by Lee Tanner via Les McCann
Les McCann. Photo by Lee Tanner via Les McCann

Les McCann, Ltd.: ‘Never a Dull Moment: Live from Coast to Coast 1966-1967’
Resonance Records

Most people know pianist Les McCann from two classic albums taped at the beginning and end of the 1960s: “Stormy Monday” (1962) a hit collaboration with the singer Lou Rawls that firmly put both of them on the map, and “Swiss Movement” (1969), which featured jazz’s major contribution to the “protest song” movement of the era, “Compared to What.”   

In between and after those two milestones, Mr. McCann, who turned 88 in September, released dozens and dozens of albums with his trio, which he calls Les McCann, Ltd. Now comes a great addition to his catalog, a three-CD package of live recordings made at two clubs on two coasts, The Penthouse at Seattle in 1966 and the Village Vanguard the year after.  I was tempted to say that the music was recorded both in a penthouse and in jazz’s most famous cellar, but annotator A. Scott Galloway informs us that the so-called Penthouse club was actually on the ground floor.

On the evidence of “Stormy Monday” and “Swiss Movement,” the two albums by Mr. McCann that jazz fans are most familiar with, it’s been customary to describe him as a “soul jazz” player. That term itself contains a multitude of meanings: some use it as a synonym for hard bop, which would mean that Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and nearly everyone on Blue Note Records in the 1960s was a soul jazz musician. On other occasions, the term is used as a euphemism for smooth jazz, which some have described as merely instrumental versions of pop hits.

Yet if soul jazz is a music unto itself and not a code word for something else, then Les McCann is one of its foremost avatars, and this new set offers fresh insights into his music.

In an appreciation of Mr. McCann included in the set, another veteran pianist, the formidable Monty Alexander, correctly observes that there are some musicians whom you can identify within eight bars.  However, with Les McCann, he tells us that anyone can tell who’s playing “in four bars, maybe.” Yet we shouldn’t confuse having a strong musical identity, which both Mr. McCann and Mr. Alexander clearly have, with being predictable. Over the course of an epic, 130-minute, 21-song package, Mr. McCann constantly surprises us with his playing.

He opens with an appropriate choice, Dizzy Gillespie’s uptempo bebop blues, “Blue n’ Boogie” and includes two readings of “The Shampoo.”  The latter was that great rarity, like Ray Bryant’s “Madison Time,” a jazz trio number that caused a ripple in the pop world, becoming, as Mr. Galloway informs us in the album notes, the inspiration for a short-lived dance craze. We expect Mr. McCann to be suitably funky on all of these, and indeed he is, but more than that he’s highly rhythmic and swinging — it’s no mystery why children would want to dance to this.

Mr. McCann does treat us to some jazz renditions of relatively recent pop hits, like “Going Out of My Head” and “Sunny.”  This may hew closer to the familiar definition of soul jazz, but these are not mere covers; Mr. McCann reworks these from the inside out, much as Bill Evans or Bud Powell would do.  The nine-minute “Sunny” starts with a left field introduction, which lays on the ears like a sunrise and could be heard in a classical piano piece. The tune then starts to stretch itself out, like a ball of twine unwinding. Mr. McCann treats it like a jazz standard, I keep hearing “Fools Rush In” in my head. Fools may rush in, but McCann takes his time.

There are also two Cole Porter songs, “Love for Sale,” which he lays out in an exotic beat that suggests Ahmad Jamal, and the less-frequently heard “I am in Love.”  The major surprise is “Yours is My Heart Alone” from the Viennese operetta “The Land of Smiles” — needless to say, operetta arias are not common currency in this idiom. 

Mr. McCann isn’t even tempted to funk it up but lays it out slowly and tenderly, teasing it patiently to a romantic resolution.  He detours into more of a soulful groove about halfway through but never treats the tune gratuitously and slows back down at the end.  He then surprises us even further by strumming the strings inside the piano itself in a manner that might be intended to suggest a zither — a nod to Austrian music after all.

Clearly, there’s more to Les McCann than most of us have ever realized. As the title suggests, there’s many moments in this set, and not one of them is dull.

The New York Sun

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