|McCann's first Atlantic LP, Much Les|
Especially the Les McCann/Eddie Harris recording of "Compared to What."
|Eugene McDaniels, also on Atlantic|
Here's why I loved it and why "Compared to What" is great.
lyric, the tune has you—and it has you with a certain biting content. The bass line is rock solid, the drummer Donald Dean is slamming out a cowbell groove, the whole thing is dripping with funk, and then McCann plays the melody to "Aquarius," the hit song from the hippie musical Hair that was then playing on Broadway. Hair was against the war too, of course, but that music—so limp and airy compared to what I would come to love about jazz—hardly had the bite of what McCann was about to sing. Also, on a purely musical level, McCann shifts his trio through several modes, rather than a set of heavy chord changes. In it's own way, "Compared to What" in this version brings to the ear just a little bit of Kind of Blue and Coltrane's "Impressions."
Then you get the soul content of the tenor playing by Eddie Harris. Harris keeps his playing here simple and blues-grounded. He and trumpeter Bailey had not rehearsed for the date, didn't really know the tunes, but Harris uses a couple of simple soul band tricks that form the tune: certain repetitions of licks, octave leaps, sudden cries in the altissimo range, punctuating honks down low—just the kind of stuff you would hear in a James Brown horn section. It's two minutes before the actual "song" begins.
McCann's singing is natural and easy, even as it's emphatic. He has a bit of the smooth delivery of Nat Cole (Brother Ray's primary influence early on), but then he brings some urgency in his upper range, a dose of rasp, and the sweet sideburns he's sporting don't hurt either. The whole thing feels like the definition of COOL. As he sits at the piano, easy and loose, he delivers the scathing lyrics ("Unreal values, crass distortion / Unwed mothers need abortion") but he does it was slight layer of distance—a hip commentator more than an angry guy. A smart guy with a gospel right hand and a great band.
There was plenty of other soul-jazz in this vein in the '60s and '70s, but "Compared to What" was a little different because it connected with such force to the actual culture, to what it meant to be American at that Watergate-stained moment when I was listening to it. This music I was coming to love was more than a nerdy obsession for a kid who like music. It mattered.
Next Installment in the Series: The (Jazz) Crusaders and Grover Washington—Pre-Smooth Jazz