One of the most curious events on the jazz scene during the past year has been the development of a controversy about Les McCann. That this young fast-developing musician should have become a storm-center has been a little puzzling to Les himself and to those around him, who are well aware that his policy is simply that of playing what he feels, and of communicating his feeling to the audience.
Controversy, of course, often does more good than harm to an artist on his way up. In Les' case it stimulated interest in his trio and helped him immeasurably at the box office and in record shops. Yet the true story of McCann's background makes it clear that much of the evidence adduced against him--that his style is a gimmick. his attitude phony and his music consequently invalid--is without justification.
Several months after the appearance of his first album, Les McCann Plays The Truth, he was the subject of a revealing article in Down Beat that might well have been called John Tynan Tells The Truth. Tynan's own analysis included this cogent observation: "Jazz today is ready once more to respond to its deep heartbeat--the cultural heritage of the American Negro. This pulse, long apparently quiescent and occasionally appearing stilled, is beating strongly again. The evidence lies in McCann's tune titles, among other manifestations, and the jazz public is eagerly poring over it, digesting it, and discovering new vigor in a music returning to where the feet grow . . . "
As Tynan pointed out, McCann has been around gospel music most of his young life. Born September 23, 1935 in Lexington, Ky., he sang as a child in the Shiloah Baptist church choir on the street where he lived. He began his piano studies in 1945, but the death of his teacher put a sudden end to his formal tuition until 1954, when he was in the Navy, stationed near San Francisco. The time he spent soaking up jazz during his off-duty hours in the Bay Area night clubs intensified a desire to resume his studies. After his discharge in 1956 he settled in Los Angeles, went to a music school and was soon gigging in local clubs.
The experiences of singing sacred music in church and listening to modern jazz in clubs were blended to produce in his style a reflection of these seemingly antithetical influences. Yet it is clear that not all Les' music is infused with the gospel spirit. He is reluctant to be typed and clearly is capable of a wider range of moods than those implicit, say, in the title numbers of his previous albums, The Truth and The Shout. The Truth has many musical faces, not the least of which assumes the shape of a popular ballad. (Some time ago Les asked me, in selecting records for "blindfold test" interviews, not to use gospel-type numbers exclusively as examples of his work. Sure enough, when I used I'll Remember April it got a four-star reaction.)
Aside from any polemics concerning its nature and origin, the vital factor in Les McCann's music is the ability of the trio to establish a jubilant rapport with the audience. Through an amalgamation of several forces--the music itself, the visual impact of the trio and Les' mordantly witty personality--there has been a consistent ability to get across to the public, whether at the Hollywood Bowl or the Vanguard in Greenwich Village or the Bit on the Sunset Strip.
Some of the most potent evidence of this power was gathered between August and December of 1960, when the trio, as a result of the interest stirred by its records, went out on the road. One of its best engagements was a 2-1/2 week booking, toward the end of the tour, at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco.
"We were a little afraid when we arrived in San Francisco," recalls Les. "Ralph Gleason had put us down when he heard our first record. But he came in the Workshop and changed his mind and gave us a fine review. Business was great and so were the folks around town. We went to people's houses for chit'lin's; we played at high school; all in all we had a ball. It was a special kick for me because when I was in the Navy around San Francisco it had always been my ambition to come back there with my own group."
Of Les' teammates, Ron Jefferson is well known through his work in the previous albums as well as through jobs in his native New York with the combos of Oscar Pettiford, Lester Young, Horace Silver, Charlie Mingus and many others. Herb Lewis, the newest member of the trio, is also its youngest. Barely out of his teens, he's from Pasadena, Cal., is a nephew of the original King Cole Trio bassist Wesley Prince, and has worked with Lennie McBrowne, Chico Hamilton and Teddy Edwards.
Oh, Them Golden Gaiters is an up-tempo blues that opens and closes with a beguiling five-chord repeated phrase. "This track is a reminder of how we felt in San Francisco," says Les. "I was depressed before I got there, but it turned out to be such a happy place--and they even had a good piano in the Club!"
"Red Sails in the Sunset was inspired," says Les, "by the Mitchell-Ruff duo's version," though the later passages are his own. Despite the acknowledged debt to Dwike Mitchell, there is much of McCann in the very slow delineation of the melody with altered chords, the long and carefully built suspense, and the blues feeling as Les begins to swing while Ron eases into double-time.
Of Big Jim, Les comments: "This was named for my father, James McCann, who still lives and works in Lexington. When I went back home for the first time in seven years I played this during a concert at my old high school--Dunbar High--and my grandmother and all my folks and friends were there to hear me." The theme is blues in F, with Herbie and Ron laying out unexpectedly at one point for twelve bars, leading to an intense and moving contrast when they resume.
I Am In Love is a colorful illustration of the McCann approach to a show tune. "We did the bridge a little differently from the way it was written," he says, "but it sounded right to us this way." Jeepers Creepers, a 22-year-old pop song, shows the trio's capacity for contrast through relaxation and tension. Note the gentle approach in the opening chorus, with Ron's light brushwork and Herbie walking softly, in contrast with the extrovert riffing later on.
Gone On and Get That Church is a fast blues. "This is an expression we'd use when we got in this groove," says Les. "We played this for our finale at the Randalls Island Jazz Festival in New York and they really went wild." The audience enjoyment is no less apparent during this in-person performance, which includes an ingenious though basically simple and humorous Herbie Lewis solo built around the tonic.
The brief and charming 3/4 passage at the end is the original work with which the trio closes every night on the job. In line with the conversational nature of many of Les' titles, he calls it We'll See Yaw'll After While, Ya Heah.
In the course of these two sides can be found more than the first-rate individual musicianship, and finely-integrated teamwork, of the Les McCann LTD. What comes across most vitally, it seems to me, is a reflection of Les' entire philosophy:
"I want my music to hit the emotions of human beings. My music, I think, brings back fond memories to all of us, memories of the good times when we heard music like it in our churches . . . Now, I'm not saying I play my music exactly the way it is played and sung in church, but it makes people happy to hear this kind of playing.
"If Jazz is played so it can be accepted, it will be accepted. Most music you hear is so tense, it makes you feel twisted up inside. Now, so far we've never tried to impress anybody--we just want to get a happy feeling on the stand."
To which I can only add, if Les will pardon the expression--amen.
-- Leonard Feather