Most people don't just sit down and write fan letters to their friends. You have to have an excuse to pin it on. This liner note is my excuse, and Les McCann is one of my few long-haul friendships. If someone said, "Quick -- who's the most remarkable person you know -- say the first name you think of," it would probably be Les McCann. That's after ten years of observation, folks. It's not flash in the pan time.
Who asked for a testimony of character, right? Not quite. One way or another, character is always tied in with talent. Know a musician with a tacky edge to his personality? Listen closely to his playing, especially if he's under pressure, and you'll pick it up. Somehow, as worlds stagger and whole cross-sections of people go crazy, Les McCann remains unpolluted -- sunny, deep, gifted, outrageous, warm and wise.
Hearing this album provides a fresh opportunity to gain perspective on Les' musical development, since it includes outstanding tracks taken from several of his previous albums. Many have been newly orchestrated, "sweetened" as they say, by arranger Gerald Wilson, who has provided so much solid orchestral support on McCann albums over the years.
Special attention has been given to Les McCann the singer. I've been nagging Les as long as I can remember, not to play piano less but to sing more. He'd throw in one, maybe two vocal tracks per album, and that was it. I have to laugh because guess what? It's the vocal tracks that get the air play and make the albums big sellers. The piano player who sings is now making it big the other way around. (I kept telling you, Maxie, but who listens to a friend?)
On this album, foxy Dick Bock has included three of Les' finest vocals. The first is Buddy Johnson's lonesome standard, Since I Fell For You. Les gets down into it without having to rewrite it, if you follow. He doesn't push for it. The same applies to Percy Mayfield's eloquently simple Please Send Me Someone to Love. Like all really good singers, Les has an instinct for which songs suit him. Always he chooses the warm ones, then extends the warmth. He has not recorded Ghost Riders in the Sky nor Yummy Yummy Yummy I've Got Love in My Tummy -- not that I'd put it past him to sing the plastic spots off both.
I must admit a certain partiality toward the third vocal, It's Way Past Suppertime, because I wrote the lyric. If it's good, it's because Les brings out people's best work. There's no resisting those exotic chord changes he writes. The ballad side of McCann has been in shadow for years. What a gas to see it come to light in the same breath as his singing.
If the talk of Les' singing was long, it's only that I figured you already knew about his piano playing. As the health of jazz fluctuates from season to season, Les McCann goes right on working, always in demand in person and on record, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Once again, this album lends perspective, since it covers several sessions. You'll hear range here, the basic talent and where it went. You'll also hear several winning musicians who have worked in McCann's rhythm sections, including bassists Herbie Lewis and Victor Gaskin and drummers Ron Jefferson and Paul Humphrey.
Someone Stole My Chittlins is obviously a McCann original. You could fill a gag book with nothing but his titles. The tune is an illustration of that groove-setting ability Les is famous for, starting in a riff and ending in a roar. The effect beats dexamyl, lacks a let-down, and can be purchased without a prescription. On John Lewis' well-known Django, Les passes through a rainbow of colors, one of which includes a sweet underecho from bassist Herbie Lewis. Falling In Love With Love has its sunny side showing. Lavande is another McCann original (the title might be a fantasy, or the name of a lady friend, or both), slow and pretty ballad Les. Narobi Nights is an original dedicated to several Zulu dancers Les met and partied with at the African Pavilion of the World's Fair.
All this, set off by Gerald Wilson's new backgrounds, is like vintage wine served in sparkling new crystal. From here, any Les McCann album is a happy thing, new or old. But how can you beat this one when it's both?
-- Morgan Ames