Among jazz artists, Les McCann can lay claim to being one of the most dissected, analyzed and discussed performers.
The controversy that accompanied his fantastic burst upon the scene a few years ago, was not without reason. Those responsible for creating the furor were the members of the self-appointed jazz cognoscente who until very recently rejected soul. Therefore it was not surprising to us who heard Les' willingness to take us to "church" via his soulful and spirited playing, and it is even more amazing that some of these same guardians of musical segregation have now become some of his greatest boosters.
With his prolific recordings, Les has presented us with one of the most rounded and complete repertoires of any active pianist in the business. Fortunately, his varied settings were not attempts to prostitute his art nor to overly commercialize him. Rather these recordings have displayed a fantastic degree of musicianship from the big band context, accompanied with organ, in a quartet setting, with new groups, all star groups and in his familiar trio setting. Through them all, Les has risen to become one of the important piano voices in jazz.
Admittedly much of his influence stems from the church sound. Those of us who have tasted of the experience of knowing what the "joyful noise" is all about, embrace him fully. For he was one of the first to enjoy any prominence who willingly told it like it was.
There is a freedom, a powerful communication that allows the receiver to enjoy and become swept up in the invisible force of the music, and those who have never encountered this delightful feeling would be among the first to reject it.
But through his playing, his style is not relegated to the uptempo sanctifying swingers only. He can balladize in a most personal manner. He cannot play cold. With Les, there must be warm feeling. Technique is not uppermost as opposed to "people, hear my message."
And the message of Les McCann is a valid one.
From one of his earlier albums, Dick Bock describes Les: "A great source of Les McCann's strength lies in his large capacity for enjoyment. Whatever activity he engages in, be it music, photography or preparing a gourmet meal, he lets the enjoyment he feels in living communicate to all those around him. It is hard to be in the audience when Les McCann is playing and not respond to the joyful power that is expressed through him."
And little can be added to this most accurate description.
We have often said that to better understand a jazz musician's music is to know him. Unfortunately most of the jazz men have been forced into limbo through the years and the sheer joy of knowing who they are and how they think is a privilege enjoyed by only a few jazz partisans.
Les has always been one of our favorite people. We have been with him on occasions when he has held court on the sidewalk outside a club where he was appearing and given off with some of his philosophical wherewithal, holding all of us spellbound. And occasionally, he will set aside his wit and allow you to penetrate his facade and reveal a most serious and deep thinker. And his music displays much of his philosophy of living.
In this album, Les presents another chapter to one already rich with outstanding musical portraits and themes.
Some of Les' best work has been recorded live. In this album, the group was recorded at The Village Gate, New York City, and The Jazz Workshop, San Francisco. From "Frankie and Johnny" to his closing theme, this concert is a most welcome example of some of the best of Les.
Throughout the album he develops constant surprises and climaxes. When he swings he occasionally will take a cluster of notes and form a crescendo. Other times he darts across the keyboard spritelike or he can forge ahead in a straight down the line no nonsense cookin' style. Through it all, he takes you with him. And he forces you to become a part of his experience.
There are few communicants in jazz who are able to communicate the message as Les, and this album is another example of "if you listen, you'll hear the message."
-- Del Shields
Executive Vice President
National Association of Radio Announcers