A four-hour spotlight of the legendary pianist Les McCann was featured on the Dec. 1 edition of Greasy Tracks.
The program included an interview with McCann and music from across his 60-year career, including tracks from his just-released A Time Les Christmas (The Abrahams Company).
A Kentucky native, McCann innocently enough joined the Navy to “see the world” in the late 1950s with nary an inkling of how his musical career would unfold. Winning a Navy talent contest for singing, he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and following his discharge from the Navy, moved to Los Angeles where he signed on with Pacific Jazz Records in 1960. He released nearly 30 albums in the next nine years, the bulk with Pacific Jazz, but a handful for Fontana, World Pacific and Limelight Records.
Before really finding his stride in the studio at Pacific Jazz, Miles Davis had recommended McCann to Julian “Cannonball” Adderly for his quintet, but McCann said he opted to do his own music and lead his own group. He would later decline an invitation to join Davis’ lineup. To this day, he says one of his great regrets is not playing with Davis.
McCann’s output in the 1960s ran the gamut from albums of original compositions to traditional jazz standards and the obligatory pop fare of the day, recorded primarily with trios, orchestras and in the case of the sadly overlooked Jazz Waltz, with the Jazz Crusaders.
In 1968, McCann signed to Atlantic Records.
The man who put Montreux “on the map”
Despite a deep catalog of releases, McCann didn’t reach international acclaim until the release of Swiss Movement in 1969 which captured him on stage at The Montreux Jazz Festival.
The festival was founded in 1967 by Montreux native Claude Nobs, René Langel and Géo Voumard, with some big financial help from Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün at Atlantic Records.
McCann played the festival nine times, including twice each in 1988 and in 1969 when he led a trio with bassist Leroy Vinegar and drummer Donald Dean just days before they were joined by saxophonist Eddie Harris and Amsterdam-based trumpeter Benny Bailey for what ultimately become the legendary performance.
The trio had recorded Much Les in 1968 and Vinegar had worked with McCann on the Live at Bohemian Caverns — Washington, DC in 1967 and Bucket O’ Grease and Les McCann Plays The Hits which each came out in 1966.
Due to some of the musicians’ late arrival in Switzerland, they only had 30 minutes to rehearse, essentially taking the stage with a set list as a guide and little idea for what was to transform given the trio’s lack of experience playing with the two newcomers in the one-off lineup.
“Compared to What” was the song that gained the most attention on Swiss Movement. It was penned by Eugene McDaniels in 1966 as a commentary on the unraveling of society and a rant directed at President Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. It first appeared on Les McCann Plays The Hits, but wouldn’t truly gain worldwide notice until the stretched-out version on Swiss Movement. To date, nearly 300 artists have covered it.
The performance had been recorded by the organizers of the event and the tapes quickly sold to Atlantic Records who released it less than six months after the concert.
Boosted by “Compared to What” as the single, the album would top Billboard’s jazz charts, go to No. 2 on the R&B chart and hit No. 29 on the LP chart.
Oddly enough, the primary venue for the fest was at the Montreux Casino which would burn down in 1971 during a performance by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention — the event forever captured in Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”
McCann admits he was not happy with the performance, saying that he returned to his room and was literally crying on the phone to his stateside wife about how bad it went. Little did he know that festival organizers had been trying to reach him at the hotel about how well the appearance went down.
Nobs later told McCann Swiss Movement “put Montreux on the map.”
Pushing the boundaries
The success of Swiss Movement gave McCann the ability to push the envelope when it came to studio work because he had the financial support from Atlantic, but it also made him an in-demand live performer for audiences around the world.
Although McCann and Harris were far from best friends and truly had “fire and ice” relationship, according to McCann – they played together live infrequently over the years and only did one studio recording, Second Movement in 1971 – they appeared in the Soul To Soul concert in Accra, Ghana, which also featured Wilson Pickett, Santana, Ike & Tina Turner, The Staple Singers, Roberta Flack and The Voices of East Harlem before an audience of 100,000.
Pianist and Atlantic label mate Joe Zawinul, who had done time with Cannonball Adderly and Miles Davis, introduced McCann to the Fender Rhodes, an electronic piano which was a key instrument in the emerging “jazz fusion” style of music that McCann would help define with his 1972 release, Invitation to Openness.
Along with Layers in 1973, McCann still regards this as his favorite work. Sparing no expense, he had producer Joel Dorn select some of the finest session players in New York City and brought them together for a four-hour recording session on May 4, 1971, at Atlantic Studios.
The line-up is a bit dizzying, some who had played with McCann before, others who hadn’t: guitarists Cornell Dupree and David Spinozza; bassists Jimmy Rowser and Bill Salter; drummers Donald Dean, Alphonse Mouzon and Bernard Purdie; percussionists Buck Clarke and Ralph MacDonald; Yusef Lateef on sax and flute; pianist Jodie Christian and harpist Corky Hale.
McCann remembers Mouzon — then in the early stages of his career having done time with McCoy Tyner and Weather Report — being aghast when he saw the drummers assembled for the session.
“He asked me, ‘what do you want me to do,’” said McCann. “I just looked at him and told him to just do a drum solo for the whole session. He smiled and gave me a big hug.”
To this day, McCann’s favorite recording is the opening track from Invitation To Openness, “The Lovers” which clocked in at 26-plus minutes, taking up the entire first side of the album.
Long a photography buff, McCann released a stunning collection of black and white photos in Invitation To Openness: The Jazz and Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960-1980 (Fantagraphics Books) in 2015.