Les McCann Ltd. - Plays The Truth

Les McCann Ltd. Plays The Truth (Pacific Jazz 1960)

In the sixties pianist Les McCann was a crowd favorite. It met with suspicion by more than a few critics, certainly those of the trendsetting Downbeat Magazine. John S. Wilson, one of its reviewers, derided McCann’s gospel style laced with ‘glib, often-lively but essentially anonymous piano with down-home bounce.

Les McCann Ltd. - Plays The Truth

Personnel

Les McCann (piano), Leroy Vinegar (bass), Ron Jefferson (drums)

Recorded

in February 1960, Los Angeles

Released

as PJ-2 in 1960

Track listing

Side A:
Vacushna
A Little ¾ For God & Co
I’ll Remember April
Fish This Week
Side B:
How High The Moon
This Can’t Be Love
For Carl Perkins
The Truth


At one time, as musicians occasionally did, McCann sent a message to Downbeat’s letter section, Chords & Discords:

“I hear Downbeat has been saying some rather bad things about us. Thank you.”

Damn deadpan funny. But was it sarcastic as well? Did McCann also imply that criticism often lacks a feeling of responsibility? Jazz was a tough way of making a living and bad press could hurt business considerably. At least a few of the legends expressed this opinion, notably in drummer Art Taylor’s revealing book of interviews, Notes And Tones.

The dislike of the ‘subjective criticism’ of one man is understandable. But on the other hand: hey, it was their livelihood as well, you know. Lest we forget, a lot of musicians themselves weren’t shy to comment on the efforts of their colleagues in Leonard Feather’s famous Downbeat section, the Blindfold Test.

At any rate, downplaying Les McCann as a bluesy cocktail pianist was rather pointless. Let’s take a look at Plays The Truth, McCann’s debut album for Pacific Jazz. Evidently, McCann is a tunesmith of catchy compositions grounded in church life and Afro-American culture. Two of them on Plays The Truth are impossible to get out of your head and why would you want to? A Little 7/8 For God & Co is a delightful melody that’s attuned to a merrily bouncing rhythm. It swings heavily in the middle section, courtesy of drummer Ron Jefferson, walkin’ bass master Leroy Vinegar and McCann himself, who couples a firm left hand with boogiewoogie-infested right hand lines. The trio brings to mind the effortless swing of Oscar Peterson’s classic outfit including Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. The tacky and irresistable, uptempo Fish This Week, reminiscent of those nifty and funky Ray Bryant tunes, evokes the luscious laughter and frivolous chit chat of a saturday night fish fry. McCann builds an articulate, ferocious solo of rollicking lines all over the keyboard, bringing to mind iconic masterminds like Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines.

His ballad renditions – I’ll Remember April and This Can’t Be Love – are typified by sentimental intro’s and hard driving middle sections. There is enough uptempo, blues-drenched soul jazz on this album to rock more than a few joints, so a cautious use of blues playing and a constraint on the formulaic loud/soft-dynamics in these ballads would’ve benefited the overall picture. Obviously, Plays The Truth reveals a hard-swinging player without any strong ideas about comprising a coherent LP. Title track The Truth is a variation on slow blues song Trouble In Mind. It’s alluring after hours-music. McCann’s move into a faster tempo after four beguiling, slow dragging minutes comes across as a rather superfluous device. A dedication to his friend, pianist Carl Perkins (a Miles Davis favorite), For Carl Perkins, is a very satisfactory blend of fat, sustained chords and uplifting trio interplay. Stop-time theme Vacushna includes the surprise of a change of key and swings like mad. McCann, typically, puts the groove into these kind of affairs from note one.

An exciting trio player, arguably McCann’s even better in the company of reeds, brass or organ, settings that called for concise solo’s and which highlighted his sprightly accompanying gifts. Cases in point: Live in New York including Stanley Turrentine and Blue Mitchell, Richard “Groove” Holmes’ Something Special, the Jazz Crusaders and Les McCann cooperation Jazz Waltz and Stanley Turrentine’s That’s Where It’s At. In 1969, McCann succesfully crossed over with the jazz funk cooperation with saxophonist Eddie Harris, Swiss Movement, spawning the Billboard chart hit Compared To What. (which also was recorded by McCann “discovery” Roberta Flack the same year) The following decades, McCann essentially sustained his formula of a ‘jazzified’ r&b and soul player and singer. A whole different ballgame. Since the late 00’s, the 81-year old McCann has kept a low profile, only occasionally performing with saxophonist Javon Jackson.

Jazz isn’t worth a penny without blues and gospel. And the sixties-era Les McCann is a blues and gospel player at heart, a preacher, communicator, entertainer. For an illustration of the way McCann captivated audiences, watch this incredible live footage from McCann’s tour in France in 1961.

Glib? Come on!!!

Richard "Groove" Holmes - Groove

Richard “Groove” Holmes Groove (Pacific Jazz 1961)

There are a number of reasons why Groove is a significant, endearing album that is perfect for beginners and essential for geeks of the ‘Organ Jazz Admiration Society.’ The most important reason, I think, is the combination of the extremely swinging individuals Les McCann, Richard “Groove” Holmes and legendary tenor saxophonist Ben Webster.

Richard "Groove" Holmes - Groove

Personnel

Richard “Groove” Holmes (organ), Les McCann, piano, Ben Webster (tenor), Lawrence “Tricky” Lofton (trombone), George Freeman (guitar), Ron Jefferson (drums)

Recorded

in 1961 at Pacific Jazz Studios, Los Angeles

Released

as PJ-23 in 1961

Track listing

Side A:
Them That’s Got
That Healin’ Feelin’
Seven Come Eleven
Side B:
Deep Purple
Good Groove


It almost never took fruition. The group was brought together in the studio for the purpose of producing a Les McCann vocal album. The warming-up, however, brought about such enthousiasm and good feelings, that McCann decided to cut an instrumental album first. Holmes was cast as leader, a generous gesture from Pacific and McCann, who discovered the organist in the first place, a short while prior to this session in a Pittsburgh club.

Because of the haphazard circumstances, one might describe Groove as a blowing session; that is, a session usually described as containing straightforward blues-based tunes and well-known standards built on the AABA-chord structure that leave a lot of room for the musicians to stretch out. Things, however, aren’t always that simple. There are mediocre blowing sessions and good planned sessions, and vice versa. To further complicate the issue: most blowing sessions are planned one way or the other, so where’s the dividing line? At any rate, this album’s simplicity works as a vehicle for honest, unforced and coherent blowing indeed. Take a listen to Ben Webster’s solo on Good Groove and you’ll know what I mean. Relaxed, cliché-free marvels like that certainly don’t come “easy”.

The instrumentation of Groove is an asset. For one thing, there’s the unconventional combination of piano and organ. It’s quite an accomplishment that Holmes and McCann succeed in avoiding an overtly heavy sound, considering the power of the monstrous Hammond machine. Indeed, the lighthearted combination is fair proof of the considerable artistic intellect of these men. In That Healin’ Feelin’ – an uplifting tune imbued with gospel piano rolls and a tacky solo by guitarist George Freeman – Holmes’ chords behind McCann’s piano are pleasantly soft-hued.

The joy of listening to Holmes is evenly divided between his carefully crafted solo’s and superb sense of dynamics. He uses different textures of Hammond sound, whichever texture is appropiate for the occasion. In the second part of That Healin’ Feelin’, during the horn solo’s, the organist puts in full-bodied, Basie-type, almost accordian-like chords, enlivening the proceedings considerably. His methods are replenished by drummer Ron Jefferson, who shows to possess the knowledge of where precisely to place classic swing accents; spot on! Groove Holmes is a masterful bass pedal player and therefore makes for a solid rhythm section with Jefferson and McCann. To furthermore stress Holmes’ understanding of dynamics, I’d like to point out the nifty, ‘thin’ sound the organist uses to solo with in Deep Purple and the question-and-answer swinger Good Groove.

An album such as this usually has a ballad included. Not Groove. It’s not sorely missed. Of course, Ben Webster is a brilliant balladeer, but the relaxed, mid-tempo Deep Purple acts as a ballad in disguise. Ben Webster’s ‘breathy’ statements are breathtaking. On the rest of the tunes, Webster honks and swings fluently. Trombonist Lawrence “Tricky” Lofton competently and joyfully adds to the old-timey sentiments.

Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian’s up-tempo, fluid classic Seven Come Eleven rounds off Side A of a relaxed, spontaneous album, combining the artistry of the already very mature debutant Groove Holmes and ultra-swingers Les McCann and Ben Webster. I can’t help but wear a broad smile on my face everytime it has been turning on the table. I’m sure it’ll do the trick for you too.

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The Jazz Crusaders Tough Talk (Pacific Jazz 1963)

The Jazz Crusaders. What’s in a name? Whether self-consciously or on a subliminal level, crusading they did; throughout the sixties they pushed the boundaries by incorporating gospel, tin pan alley and Beatles into jazz and popularising it in a major way. This is far from a downgrade on their part. Indeed, I don’t think that I’ll be the last to consider them the West Coast equivalent of The Jazz Messengers or Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet. Maybe not solo-wise, but their group sound and interplay certainly carries the kind of excitement that these iconic groups brought.

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Personnel

Wilton Felder (tenor), Wayne Henderson (trombone), Joe Sample (piano, harpsichord), Stix Hooper (drums), Bobby Haynes (bass)

Recorded

February 13 & 19, 1963 at Pacific Jazz Studios, Los Angeles

Released

as PJ-68 in 1963

Track listing

Side A:
Deacon Brown
Turkish Black
Brahms’ Lullaby
Boopie
Side B:
Tough Talk
No Name Samba
Lazy Canary
Lonely Horn
Brother Bernard


Tough talk is The Jazz Crusaders’ fourth release on Pacific Jazz Records and a very rewarding session. (it is not to be confused with 1973’s Blue Note compilation of the same name) With the exception of Brahms’ Lullaby, all tunes are originals. Most of them revolve around exceptionally playful themes that bookend vigorous and thoughtful blowing. These gentlemen, together from their teens and still barely in their twenties, play with youthful abundance. On Turkish black, an Eastern flavored, quixotic composition on which Felder’s and Wayne Henderson’s interplay between tenor and trombone works particularly well, the very articulate tenor of composer Wilton Felder exhibits an urgency that is reminiscent of John Coltrane. Although Felder is very much his own man, this particular aspect of his playing would come to the fore especially on 1967’s Uh Huh.

Title track Tough Talk is a very catchy blues. It bounces merrily and Joe Sample’s harpsichord gives it a distinctive flavor. It’s not really possible to use the harpsichord in a percussive, down-home fashion. This might be the reason they reworked it on their 1965 album Chili Con Soul. And tastefully so.

Of course in the seventies they would give full measure to pop and funk as The Crusaders. Fame came with it and as an apex to their career stands their 1979 hit collaboration with Randy Crawford, Street Light. High standard entries in the mainstream but not my cup of tea.

YouTube: Tough Talk