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20 Special Fingers is an unusual two-disc combination of Les McCann's 1968 Atlantic debut, Much Les (already available on CD as a Rhino two-fer) with the Mitchell-Ruff Trio's 1961 Atlantic debut, The Catbird Seat. Joel Dorn, producer of the McCann set and owner of the label that issued this set, explains this oddity by recalling in the disc's notes a favorite McCann performance of "Yours Is My Heart Alone" (from 1964) that was evidently inspired by Dwike Mitchell's earlier performance of the tune.
While inspiration and execution rarely sound the same, interesting pianism is certainly consistent among the two sets (and the meaning behind the disc's awkward title).
McCann's set is filled with earthy, gospel tones of his well-known trio, supplemented by tasteful Latin percussion and William Fischer's always subtle and warmly welcome command of a small string section. "Doin That Thing" is the disc's simmering funk centerpiece, a sensual McCann-Fischer knockout. A blistering take on "Love For Sale" (like "Doin' That Thing," also well featured on last year's live set How's Your Mother? ) is another highlight. "Burning Coal," "Benjamin" and "Roberta" (for McCann's protégé, Roberta Flack) are familiar McCann staples and the set also features the first appearance of McCann's vocal ballad, "With These Hands."
The Mitchell-Ruff Trio's set, on the other hand, seems stark and intellectual by comparison. But it's an utter delight. The pianist, a synergy of the most notable aspects of both Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans, was often recorded with bassist Willie Ruff, who also doubled on French horn. The two met as part of Lionel Hampton's mid-1950s band and recorded together (notably with Dizzy Gillespie) into the 1980s. Here, they add drummer Charlie Smith to give this genuinely interesting and affecting program a familiar interpretation by a standard piano trio. It's anything but. Each of these half-dozen songs explores great depths and, ultimately, elicits fascinating logic and consideration. Mitchell's title cut, a slow blues, and the ostensibly humorous "Gypsy in my Soul" engage head and heart. The standards "Street of Dreams" and "I'll Remember April" seem out of the ordinary, too, if not wholly extraordinary upon each return.
Both sets here are worthy of interest and attention, but in quite different ways and easily enjoyed - but probably on separate occasions. Still worth checking out.
Songs:From Much Les : Doin' That Thing; With These Hands; Burnin' Coal; Benjamin; Love For Sale; Roberta. From The Catbird Seat : The Catbird Seat; Street of Dreams; So In Love; Con Alma; Gypsy in my Soul; I'll Remember April.
Players:From Much Les : Les McCann: piano; Leroy Vinnegar: bass; Donald Dean: drums; Willie Bobo; timabales; Victor Pantoja: conga; Ron Carter, Selwart Clarke, Winston Collymore, Noel DaCosta, Richard Elias, Emanuel Green, Theodore Israel, Warren Laffredo, Kermit Moore, Harvey Shapiro: strings; Willian Fischer: director. From The Catbird Seat : Dwike Mitchell: piano; Willie Ruff: bass; Charlie Smith: drums.