A couple of months ago, I sat in a darkened Pacific Jazz studio listening to and watching Les McCann listen to playbacks of some material he had, a day or so before, recorded. This material was part of the recently released "Somethin' Special" (PJ-51) featuring Les's piano with the organ of Richard Holmes and the guitar of Joe Pass. During one particularly exciting bit of playing by Joe, McCann kicked out one leg and exclaimed, "Man! That guitar player sure does play!" Now Les is already an established popular jazz star of the first rank and one whom Pacific Jazz is most anxious to record in new and different combinations--especially those that it seems might spur the pianist to greater swinging efforts. Therefore, as you might suspect, it was a short jump from such persistently glowing compliments as the one above to an arrangement whereby Joe Pass received an invitation to join Les McCann Ltd. for a musical congress--a congress that took care of its business in two sessions of downrightly stimulating jazz.
Recorded in July and August of 1962, these sides represent for this writer the high point thus far of the career of Les McCann, jazz pianist. At this stage in Les's development, I have a feeling that Pass is just the proper additive; his mature but never domineering musical support takes a bit of the pressure off Les, who is, it seems, just at the point in his career where he is beginning to reveal a marked ability to play lyric single-note lines that are rapidly broadening his improvisational spectrum. Adding this facility to his already well-formed rhythmic gifts and his thoroughly bluesful feeling, he should in the coming year be just that much more rewarding and exciting a player in clubs throughout the country. Herein, then, Joe Pass adds not only a strong and stimulating solo voice but provides fills, rhythmic support, deft comping, and a consistently lovely sound, that allows Les to just sit up there and wail when he feels like it. As a result, Les McCann Ltd. swings with that deep cushiony sound that piano, guitar, bass and drums can achieve--properly done, one of the great joys of jazz listening.
This album also reveals an aspect of Les McCann's playing that I find growingly attractive: he is developing a delicacy of touch and displaying a chordal sense of widened scope that together make him one of the more listenable romanticists among our popular modern jazzmen. His willingness to be patient with balladic materials compliments these characteristics well and gives a relaxed "afterhours" feel to his music that will surely attract many more listeners to his corner.
And then there's Joe Pass. Joe made his debut (PJ-48) in mid-spring 1962, with his house-mates from Synanon (a local seaside spa for folks no longer wishing to take a powder on life), passing from legendary status to bigger-than-a-monster reality in the next few months. He appeared in prominent and devastating solo form with Les and Groove Holmes as previously mentioned and recently earned a few points in the 1962 Down Beat Magazine International Critic's Poll as new star on his instrument (everybody who heard him "live" voted for him, which will give you an idea where he's headed in the next year). I've written previously that Joe's playing seems to be the fulfillment of a whole era of jazz guitar, embodying the contributions and special attributes of half a dozen predecessors into a breathtaking whole that includes an improvisational skill of remarkably high level. I'd like to add here that there is not a prettier or tougher sound on the guitar than that which Joe extracts. His sure touch, perfect time, and ability to shade give the instrument an expressional ability that is fleetly conversational--a characteristic that few modern practitioners have mastered.
The last time Les McCann Ltd. set forth their wares in grooves (in New York, PJ-45) the bassist was young Herbie Lewis. Lewis decided to remain behind thereafter in The Apple and joined the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet. His move meant the inevitable reunion of Les and Ron Jefferson with their old side-kick in the company, bassist Leroy Vinnegar, owner of the bottom of the bass. Leroy is a very strong man and his performance in this record emphasizes the highly essential qualities of his playing. A player who eschews ornamentation for the direct approach to matters, he is the perfect esthetic compliment to the ways of McCann and Jefferson.
Jefferson, himself, is a very direct swinger, who though technically skillful, finds his greatest moments in just kicking life straight into his cohorts. His swing may be somewhat softened here by Pass's guitar, but he is obviously not deterred in his basic purpose of percussively enlivening these performances.
As for the selections, they include originals, jazz standards, and Tin Pan Alley songs. Fondue is a McCann bright original with buoyant piano and fleet guitar. On Bernie's Tune, note the "square" way Pass states the melody, following this with a markedly unsquare solo. Les's piano solo really pulses here, and things close out with spare piano chords riding atop some joyous swinging by the section. Ron Jefferson's This for Doug is the prettiest tune in the album for this writer and sits on a 3/4 time that swings lightly (note how Ron 3/4's with brushes only and no hi-hat at first, giving a nice dancinf feel). Les has a good long solo and Pass is an exemplary supporter, as he provides delicate obligato here and chords lightly there. You're Driving Me Crazy attains that easy juicy feeling that makes its groove an popular one for swinging. (I half expected Zoot Sims to solo somewhere along the line.) There is a relaxed solo by Les with one rapid-fire line that reminds of Oscar Peterson. Pass enters to point out some other aspects of the situation before the close. On Time begins churchily but then crashes into 4/4 and really roars from start to finish. It Could Happen to You exemplifies Les's developing ballad approach suggested above and shows how he keeps things taut but not tense at slow tempi. I'm glad to be reintroduced to the ballad Yours Is My Heart Alone herein; its performance is certainly one of the highlights of the album, especially for the adroitly arranged opening and closing with gentle chording by Pass. Maichen is Leroy's good line and reemphasizes Les's and Vinnegar's great feeling for bluesy tunes. So What (closing the album) is the Miles Davis effort but instead of following Miles's own feeling for the tune McCann uses it merely as a basis for a furious up tempo statement. Note his fine control at this tempo and his humorous salt peanuts plus variations. Pass plays with incredible clarity for such a rapid tempo.
The above comments are the first ones I had upon listening to the tapes of these recordings. First impressions are often mistakenly keen for certain aspects of a musical offering and frequently miss wholly what later proves the most lasting moments. In any event, it's unlikely that what especially impressed me will be similarly engrossing to other listeners, who doubtless will discover aspects of these recordings that have passed me by. Still, I will bet on one thing: the music of Les McCann and Joe Pass as held in the grooves of this disc will retain its shape and wearing qualities one way or another for quite a few plays and years. While it doesn't take itself with grim seriousness, it is indubitably seriously solid music, worthy of your jazz ears.
-- John William Hardy