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Les McCann: Never Say No Again

Chris M. Slawecki By

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We all have greatness within us. But we refuse—or we take many, many lifetimes—to discover ourselves. —Les McCann
"Be who you are and not who you ain't. Because when you are who you ain't, you're not who you are."

Keyboardist, vocalist, bandleader, songwriter and photographer Les McCann really talks like this. About his music, about musicians, about his career—about everything. I learned this during the following interview, scheduled to discuss Omnivore Records' March 2015 reissue of McCann's improvisational landmark Invitation to Openness, generally out of print since its original 1972 Atlantic Records' release; this reissue was jointly rolled out with the release of McCann's first book Invitation to Openness: The Jazz and Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960—1980 (Fantagraphics Books, Inc.), which features previously unpublished candid photographs of personal jazz friends and acquaintances—Miles Davis, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder and dozens more—culled from McCann's personal collection of hand-snapped black and white photographs, plus a new interview with McCann by book curator Pat Thomas.

Recorded at Atlantic's midtown Manhattan studio in the summer of 1971, Invitation to Openness is unlike any other title in McCann's extensive catalog mainly because of "The Lovers," a 26-minute plus collective experiment of improvisation that features the leader on acoustic piano, electric keyboards and synthesizers, directing an ensemble whose members showed up with no idea what they were about to play: McCann's bandmates Jimmy Rowser on bass and Donald Dean on drums and percussion, plus Yusef Lateef on saxophone, oboe and flute, guitarists Cornell Dupree and David Spinozza, percussionist Ralph MacDonald, drummers Bernard Purdie and Alphonse Mouzon, and harp player Corky Hale, who jumped in during a break between sets playing behind Tony Bennett at the Waldorf Astoria! "I don't believe he has ever had a record that he was more personally involved with or cared nearly as much about as this one," reflected McCann's Atlantic Records' producer, Joel Dorn.

(McCann strolled into the studio with the melody and bass lines but not much else written for the other two tunes on the original set, "Beaux J. Poo Boo" and "Poo Pye McGoochie." The 2015 reissue tacks on a historic bonus: A roaring live version of "Compared to What," a huge hit for McCann and Eddie Harris from their milestone Swiss Movement live album from the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival (Atlantic, 1969), recorded in 1975 with blues legend Buddy Guy on lead guitar.)

"I love to listen to this music with openness and without thoughts or images. I turn the lights down and the music up, and I find joy in the different places it takes me," mused McCann in this set's original liner notes. "My audience was becoming younger and younger, and that's really what I was after," he later explained. "Young people would say, 'We love that electric piano. You ain't shit on the other one, don't touch the grand, but Les McCann is the master of the Fender Rhodes.' They'd tell me that!"

"One listen to one of his recordings, one chance encounter, or one look at a few of the photographs in this book, and you can tell that this man, McCann, possesses sincere curiosity and compassion for 'the soul' inside others," A. Scott Galloway wrote in the Forward to the book Invitation to Openness. "In that sense, perusing the photographs in this book is not much different from listening to Les's music. The photos reveal another manner in which Les is able to capture intimate portraits of people and of the soul peeking out from the inside."

"What you hold in your hands is very much like the making of the Swiss Movement album, back in the day: Les McCann and Eddie Harris were booked to play a gig together at the Montreux Jazz Festival, which was originally recorded merely as a 'document' of the concert, not as a potentially stellar live album—it just happened to come out brilliantly," curator Thomas further explained in his Introduction. "McCann carried a camera around for years, just to capture the wine, women, and song that he encountered. Thoughts of a book? No way! Decades later, it just happened to come out brilliantly."

One of the most thoroughly enjoyable parts of the book Invitation to Openness, alongside his insightful pictures, is McCann's personal remembrances of his photographic subjects, including: Duke Ellington ("Of the ten albums I would take on a desert island, Live at Newport (1958, Columbia) would be one of them."); Richard "Groove" Holmes ("Damn! Biggest, blackest, fattest motherfucker ever!"); and Nina Simone ("Her personal relationships were sometimes volatile. So, I made friends with her kids 'cause I could tell they were looking for a real daddy, you know? 'We like you, Mr. McCann, would you consider being my stepfather?' I said, 'Hell no! Are you crazy?'").

"We're all improvising, trying to understand the purpose and contribute to the whole thing, but not with something we've already known," McCann confides in the new liner notes to the Openness reissue. "To me, discovery is true jazz."

All About Jazz: A personal note before we begin the interview: From the bottom of my heart, thank you for the hours of enjoyment I've received from your Les McCann Live at Montreux album (1973, Atlantic) album, particularly side four when Rahsaan Roland Kirk comes out to blow through your encores with you.

Les McCann: Yeah, yeah—wow, I haven't heard about that record in a long time. Nobody talks about that one.

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