Wednesday, August 05, 2009
Improvised Icon - The District
From the District - (08/05/09)
In the summer of 1969 the Les McCann Trio played the Montreux Jazz Festival backed by horn legends Eddie Harris and Benny Bailey. Without written charts or time for rehearsal, the minutes-old quintet hit the stage and recorded one of the most influential soul-jazz singles. “Compared to What” is a blistering shout of frustration that brought success to road-weary jazz pianist Les McCann, reinvigorated veteran pop star Eugene McDaniels and launched the career of soul great Roberta Flack.
Composed by his friend McDaniels, McCann’s version of “Compared to What” opens with a rollicking montuno before floating a reference to “Aquarius” over a wailing cowbell. From there the song turns into an unstoppable eight-minute freight train. McCann sings a series of confrontational verses (“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”), while in between the horns blast the soundboard into the red.
Part of the jazz generation that includes fellow pianists Ramsey Lewis and Gene Harris, McCann was raised on the sounds of Erroll Garner and developed an iron-fisted right hand that led to a string of releases on the Pacific Jazz label. His first album for Atlantic Records, Swiss Movement, was a live recording of his ferocious Montreux performance jump-started by “Compared to What.”
McDaniels got his start in the early 1960s with radio epics “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” and “Tower of Strength.” By the time McCann was playing his songs he had transformed from charming pop star to seething activist. McDaniels eventually went on to write “Feel Like Makin’ Love” for Roberta Flack, who had been discovered by McCann in a Washington nightclub and whose debut features a version of “Compared to What” released just two days before McCann’s incendiary set.
McCann’s interpretation is an invigorating marathon of soulful exclamations featuring great sax work by Eddie Harris. Two decades on, “Compared to What” still stands as one of the great live jazz recordings. And why not? He was only trying to make it real.
LONG BEACH JAZZ FESTIVAL RAINBOW LAGOON | 400 SHORELINE VILLAGE DR | LONG BEACH 90802 | 562.424.0013 | LONGBEACHJAZZFESTIVAL.COM | FRI-SUN $45-155 | PARKING $10 | LES MCCANN SWISS MOVEMENT PLAYS SAT
Improvised Icon @ the District