The jazz pianist has always confounded the critics. He has consistently made them eat their words and revise their assessment of his worth to the music world at large and the jazz community in particular.
Les McCann is a case in point. Despite the lack of critical approval of his early work he has consistently demonstrated the fact that he has a direct way of communicating with an audience. He first gets them with him in a rhythmic sense then plays them like a well tuned piano. This is a talent which few performers possess and McCann uses it well.
It is obvious that he has grown up with traditional American Negro music (hymns, spirituals, work songs, gospel songs, etc.) but he, like Ray Charles, Dinah Washington and many others uses this heritage to musically say things which audiences, young and old, relate to today. This is not an easy thing to do and it takes a special kind of performer to bring it off. Les McCann is such a performer.
One night not long ago he sat in with my trio at the Hickory House. It was late and there were several well known musicians among the regular customers. A couple of them had never heard Les in person. He played several tunes and captivated the audience as usual and when he finished the musicians were as excited as the non-musicians in the audience. Typical comments were -- "Man, he sure cooks." "He plays some different changes, doesn't he!" "He certainly has that soul bag together!" This was the same reaction he had been getting all around the country with his own group in small jazz clubs, large ones, jazz festivals, concerts and on records. In a word, everywhere.
The McCann sense of humor and sense of the theatrical nuance is becoming as well known as the gospel inspired beat and moody ballad sound which characterizes his style of piano playing. His comic efforts have been likened to those of Dizzy Gillespie and indeed he will take time out to really dig for laughs but when he turns back to the piano, just like Dizzy, his playing says everything necessary.
On special occasions, Les has demonstrated his ability to be a good accompanist, both with singers like Lou Rawls, Joe Williams and with instrumentalists like Stanley Turrentine, Blue Mitchell, Frank Haynes. As a matter of fact when his trio backed Joe Williams at Newport it was a fitting climax to a very swinging evening of music, and when a trio and a singer can close a festival concert and still leave the audience clamoring for more it is obvious that they have something special to say to the jazz audience.
This collection of trio selections includes some of the most requested material in the Les McCann repertoire. It is interesting to note the subtle differences in the way Les improvises against the bass lines of Paul Chambers on "Fish This Week" and "Kathleen's Theme" as opposed to what he plays on Herbie Lewis' lines on "Gone On and Get That Church", "The Truth" and "We'll See Yaw'll After While Ya Heah". Also, the Vic Gaskin lines on "The Shampoo", "Gus Gus" and "The Shout" add much to the excitement generated by Paul Humphrey's drums on the "Live" side, which was recorded at an "After Hours Concert" at the Esquire Theatre in Los Angeles, California. Paul's solo extends the tradition established in the earlier editions of the Les McCann trio by Ron Jefferson who is heard on "Church", "The Truth" and "We'll See Yaw'll".
While it is true that sidemen often influence the soloist in varying degrees, this collection shows that Les McCann swings in his own way and does not use the bass and drum as a crutch as do many of today's pianists. He projects humor, tenderness and other emotions in his own way, and his audiences love it. He is the kind of jazz musician who leaves large audiences screaming for more rather than small audiences nodding knowingly.
-- Billy Taylor