Recorded live at Shelly's Manne Hole in Los Angeles, this album is both typical and atypical of Les McCann. Typically, it contains a preponderance of original compositions -- McCann is a prodigious composer; atypically, it shows a reflective side of McCann, a sign of his continued growth as both pianist and composer.
I came to McCann rather late, just about a year ago to be exact. It's only recently that he left his home ground, the West Coast, to travel the breadth of the land. Though he has been prolifically recorded, I had somehow managed to miss him. He had made his first incursion East last year and I recall most vividly the first time I saw him. Where had I been? What had happened to the pipeline? Perfidious friends, to be sure. No matter. The next day I bought every album that he had ever recorded. I was hooked hopelessly. Subsequent records and appearances have only cemented my regard for his skill as pianist, his ability as composer, his predilection for experimentation and his effervescent, truly inspired performances.
There is a special verve and joie de vivre that come through in McCann's albums that merely hints at his consummate skill as a visual performer. Dizzy Gillespie and McCann have the field to themselves. In a field of darkness -- serious darkness, at that -- they are luminous mavericks. Both combine humor -- the same kind of nutty, offbeat humor, by the way -- with first-class, meaningful music and yet, somehow, are able to keep the two from infringing upon each other. It's hard to create a comedic mood -- one that does justice to a topflight humorist -- then break it off to create a new mood, but McCann is able to do it in a breeze. It's uncanny.
He sits between songs, a pixieish expression on a too round face, eyes twinkling, measuring his audience (some say he counts the house), toying carelessly with the microphone with his surprisingly long, straight fingers and in short order has the place in an uproar. His humor is ridiculous -- it can be gleaned from some of his song titles: "That was the Freak That Was" and "She Broke My Heart (And I Broke Her Jaw)" -- broad, sly, subtle, frequently scatalogical and always good natured. It's the natural, genuine expression of a man bubbling over with good spirits and he, apparently, is no more able to restrain his spirits than to abandon music. And why not? Who is to say that levity and jazz can't coexist?
McCann's piano, in its way, is as identifiable as Erroll Garner's. It is zesty, full of life, has originality, great expression and, he can't get away from it, humor. He's capable of very sensitive readings, something which even his strongest critics are prone to acknowledge. He's at home equally with ballad or uptempo, and the group can swing like mad. He is especially good with introductions, many of which he solos at some length before the group joins him. Underlying everything is a modified gospel style, which can break out in the most unexpected places -- as in a brief run in "I Could Have Danced All Night," one of the finest pieces in the album. The effect, in a fresh, strongly meditative arrangement of a tune that has been attacked from every angle by both pop and jazz groups, is startling, but then it quickly becomes clear that the wedding is just right. McCann has been heavily chordal in the past but that trait -- there's nothing wrong with it, of course -- is mostly absent in this album, again a sign of his increasing development.
McCann is backed in strong fashion by his longtime sidemen, Victor Gaskin, bass, and Paul Humphrey, drums. They are thoroughly integrated (the word, of course, is used in its old-fashioned meaning). When they all start cooking in ensemble, they can pour on the passion with a breathtaking vengeance. They shift wonderfully from wild dynamics to pretty melody and back again with easy transition. Gaskin has a booming fat sound and he gets a lovely tone when he uses the bow, which he does more on this album than most. Humphrey is a busy drummer, though unusually quiet, and he can work in a strong network of complex cross-patterns. He uses the tambourine to a rocking effect. The jazz pattern is never lost -- as in "How's Your Mother." Both sidemen are excellent, and highly underrated, I think. They certainly make life easy for any pianist.
"All Alone" is the only vocal on the album, which is too bad, since McCann has developed real style as a singer. He has found himself in an odd position these days, singing more and more in club dates because of audience demand. Each of his last several albums have included some vocal. He came to singing professionally late, less than two years ago. Originally, I suppose he did it for kicks, but kicks sometimes have a way of backfiring from their original purpose. More and more people requested songs and, whether he wanted to or not, McCann found himself searching for songs to fill the demand. It seems to me that he has been quite shy about his singing -- he has gone to extraordinary lengths to find the right tune to suit his particular talent, which he thinks is limited -- but he may be shucking that off now. At any rate, "All Alone" represents a departure for him; in the past he has almost always sung the offbeat, lesser known tunes. A few were even written especially for him. He sings the first chorus in the ballad style in which it was written but when he slides into his second chorus, the McCann style really shows. He can swing, that man can. There is a passage where he approximates the sound of Gaskin's bow, something which, to the best of my knowledge, he has tried for the first time. It's done very well, too, and surely it's a sign that he may be taking his singing more seriously.
"My Friends" -- could they be his sidemen? -- and "She Broke My Heart (And I Broke Her Jaw)" have the strong interplay of drums, bass and piano which generally characterizes the group's sets in a club. In both there are some beautiful exchanges between Gaskin and Humphrey.
"Young and Foolish" is a pretty ballad, one of the few on the album that is not his composition. It winds up with McCann stroking the strings of the piano, an unusual way for a jazz musician to end a tune and one that McCann has been experimenting with more and more in ballads. The sound is sweet and melancholy and very touching with nostalgic overtones, and in the confines of a small, intimate club the audience is genuinely affected by it.
-- John Pagones
Night Club Editor of the Washington Post