Les McCann is legend at the Emergency Ward of Roosevelt Hospital in New York. Having hurt his leg playing basketball some months ago, Les lurched painfully up to the receiving desk. Rule One for hospital attendants, in order for them to maintain their image of unblowable cool, is: Never React. "Married or single," said the attendant, writing on a card. "Both," said Les. When the laughter died down, Les was helped elaborately to a chair where he continued, with a sprained leg, to break up not only the immovable attendant, but a man with a broken arm, a woman with non-specific ailments, a man with what he thought was a heart attack, a door cop with a severe case of boredom, and me.
In eight years of friendship, I have never seen Les McCann in a situation where his presence did not impress upon people the priceless value of laughter. Predictably, laughter sticks out of his music like pins in a cushion. But that's not a very technical description. Bring on the technique.
Les McCann plays faster now than he did eight years ago. He knows more beautiful chords and voicings. His rhythms are more intricate when he wishes them to be. He knows more songs. The point is that it was always there, the magic knowledge of how to make music sing. Only now it's MORE there. To prove the point, listen to Les' version of his tune THE SHOUT in this album, then go back and listen to his original recording of it, made some years ago. (Most people who have one McCann album have most of them.) At one point in THE SHOUT, Les pauses to play a portion of THE OLD RUGGED CROSS. It's unlikely that you've heard these deep, warm chords in church.
Because Les McCann's power as a driving, rhythmic pianist is so immediate and intense, not enough has been said in the past about his grasp of harmonics. His chord choices are unerringly right and rich. Despite seeming effortlessness, it didn't just happen that way. No one simply falls into voicings as thoughtful as Les' by accident. They are arrived at through trial and error, intuition and study, alone somewhere in a room where, hopefully, sun shines down on the keyboard. Listen to the ballad AUTUMN LEAVES. An overworked tune, right? Les McCann peers into it and rediscovers, recreates its depths, chords spilling downward as it begins in a tone as gentle as a whisper.
For years I have argued with Les about his singing. I think it's superb, and as I've pointed out to him, I'm never wrong. Les doesn't put as much emphasis upon his singing as it deserves. He has never sounded more mellow, graceful, impassioned than he does on the moving vocal in this album. In a rare moment of pensiveness, Les introduces NOBODY ELSE BUT ME by saying, "This is song about a guy who just wants to be himself. Who's that. . . that's me." Will you listen to me, Les? You're a great singer. In keeping with his fastideous if unaccountable habit of giving credit where it is due, Les would like it to be known that on this album, recorded before a loving audience at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C., the choreography was provided by Tony Taylor, while the dramatic lighting and scenic sets were designed by the Rykken family.
The distinctive Les McCann sound is deeply dependent, as is Les, upon his trio. The bassist is Leroy Vinnegar, who was such a major factor in the success of the original Les McCann trio and has recently returned to work with the group. Aside from his formidable talent, giant-economy-sized Leroy has the sweetest smile in the western world. To see the smile and hear the fine, big, warm sound of the bass working together with Les McCann on stage is a heartwarming experience. Les and Leroy look at each other a lot when working, creating a mysterious thread through which two personalities, two sets of ideas are interwoven and energized by one another. Les and Leroy are also presidents of each other's fan clubs.
Gluing it all in place is drummer Frank Severino, ex-Californian, old friend of Les'. Frankie is many-splendored: composer, painter, fond husband of fond wife and almost-mother, incredible teller of jokes and impromptu one-liners, fast-developing fine guitarist, and best of all, strong and sensitive drummer. Before joining Les, Frankie worked for some time with Carmen MacRae. It takes a great drummer to play for a great singer. Now all that talent is complementing Les McCann's trio. It's nice to see the matter of color put to such a good use: hilarity. Of course with good music, as with good friendship, once it starts, color stops.
Les McCann Trio fans tend to be avid and personally involved. The youngest I ever met was six; the oldest wasn't sure of his age. All want to meet Les and most do, for this is probably the most meetable man in life. In many cases, Les and his music are a family affair. Example: Recently Les and the trio performed at a function in Washington whose star was the ever-friendly Vice President. At one point Les was standing beside Mr. Humphrey when, in a beat of silence, a young voice could be heard saying, "Who's that standing next to Les McCann?" The laughter sounded just the same as it did at the Roosevelt Hospital Emergency Ward, and now there is one more place where Les McCann is a personal legend.
-- Morgan Ames