MP3 Monday: August 7, 2006

I was surprised — nah, shocked — when I searched the archives and found I had never even mentioned this week’s MP3 Monday focus, the great Les McCann. In the last six months, he’s been in pretty constant rotation at Chez Crabwalk.
As always, the MP3s will be up for one week, so be quick with your downloading.
Compared to What” (live) by Les McCann and Eddie Harris. From the album Swiss Movement (1969).
Les McCann is a jazz pianist. He was pretty traditional in his early years, through the mid-1960s, but with time his music became more soulful, a little funkier, and a little “poppier.” Or, more accurately, more populist. (In other words, what would come to be known as soul-jazz.)
He started emphasizing his gruff voice more often, and in the early 1970s, added more clavinet and Moog-style keyboards. The result was a sound that took a lot from jazz fusion, but didn’t require the intellectual overhead that guys like Miles Davis were at the time.
I first heard of Les when I heard a track of his on KEXP. It sounded interesting, so I threw one of his albums of my wish list tried to remember to search him out sometime. Of course, I forgot.
But a couple years later, I bought a copy of Soul to Soul, a film of ’60s black American musicians playing a concert in Ghana; Les was one of the musicians, and my memory was triggered.
“Compared to What” was Les’ first big hit — both the single and the album went platinum. Recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1969 with his regular collaborator Eddie Harris, it was of the moment — particularly the anti-Nixon lyrics. (“The President, he’s got his war / Folks don’t know just what it’s for / Nobody gives us rhyme or reason / Have one doubt, they call it treason.”) It opens with some spare modal piano that sounds almost Bill Evans-y, but after a minute or so seems to shrug off the pretense and accept itself as a groovy pop song. It’s head-bopping joy from there on.
Price You Gotta Pay To Be Free” (live) by Les McCann. From the album Live at Montreux (1972).
Perhaps my favorite Les track, and the perfect example of his merger of jazz with more popular styles. (Although Nixon fans will again be disappointed.) Sounds a bit like what Stevie Wonder might have been playing circa 1972 had he been about 20 years older. The song was written by a teenager named Nat Adderley Jr., the nephew of the great Cannonball Adderley. Cannonball recorded his own version, now sadly out of print. (Nota bene: While Swiss Movement was also recorded at Montreux, this is from a different date four years later, when Les was a little more funky and a little more electric.)
What’s Going On” and “Shamading” by Les McCann. Both from the album Talk To The People (1972).
Talk To The People is probably his best studio album, I’d say — it came out shortly before the aforementioned Montreux live album, so a lot of the tracks are duplicated. “Shamading” is an upbeat funk number, with that great clavinet sound; it was on record-store shelves at the same time as Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, and both guys were hitting similar territory. (Man, whatever happened to the clavinet? I have trouble thinking of a song that wouldn’t be made better with a little clavinet. Screw “more cowbell.”)
“What’s Going On” is, of course, a cover of the Marvin Gaye classic — slower and looser. Les swaps out some of the anger for a sense of resignation. I love the way that he plays the lead-in to the chorus; when you finally hear the song’s title, it’s exultant.
There’s plenty of good Les to listen to if you’re interested. Along with albums linked above, there’s Another Beginning, Comment, the more expansive Invitation to Openness, the strangely electronic Layers, and the (I think out-of-print) Bucket of Grease and Les is More.