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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Openness: The Jazz and Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960—1980 (Fantagraphics Books, Inc.), which features previously unpublished candid photographs of personal jazz friends and acquaintances—Miles Davis, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder and dozens more—culled from McCann's personal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.

AAJ: The joy in your singing and playing has brought joy to so many others, including and especially me.

LM: Wow, you sound like the way I feel about my music, too, so I can understand what you're saying.

AAJ: Do you have children, or grandchildren? It's easy to imagine that you're a pretty hip grandpop.

LM: I do but I don't get to see them like I want to. I'm good with everybody else's babies. Especially on airplanes. I've been on planes where mom was so sleepy that she couldn't even hold her eyes open but her baby's crying, and I've said, "Let me take your baby." And they did, a couple times. This was years ago. People are afraid to even look at you nowadays on a plane. But I've had some great experiences with babies. Only because I am a baby myself.

AAJ: You are very open and non-judgmental and childlike, in the best possible ways.

LM: And most of my friends can't stand it.

AAJ: It looked from the outside that the Atlantic jazz recording family in the 1970s was precisely that—a family—because a lot of you guys played on each other's records. Did it feel like a family on the inside too?

LM: Well, that's what they called us. It was totally accepted that way there: People worked with who they could work with and they had enough crew of people that they had hired with the company so that you could deal with the person you felt you best worked out with. Most of the time it seemed like they'd put you with the right people. In my heart, the way I feel about the music we call jazz, I didn't need to work with anyone trying to tell me what to play, you know? My theory is, you don't tell a jazz musician what to play. You can tell somebody who's looking for songs or who needs help what to play, if you're an A&R man, but not the musician. A jazz musician, he only does his music.

So when the time came for me to change my contract and go to Atlantic, they told me that they were putting me together with a nineteen year old disc jockey who we just hired from Philadelphia, and I just so happened to know who he was. When we talked, he said, "I don't tell nobody what to do. I'll listen to it and I'll tell you if I like it or don't like it and that's it." I said, "OK, we can work."

He was I would say one of the people I was really close to. Joel Dorn was one of the few people I ever met who, we had no restrictions on how we spoke or what words to use with each other as free human beings.

AAJ: Is that why there's such a great feeling on all your records Joel Dorn produced?

LM: No, the point I was trying to make was that when I came to the company—to any company—the focus has to be on me and my music. All the producer has to do is just back me up. Tell me if you like it or you don't, but it really doesn't matter because you can't tell a jazz musician what to play. You can suggest. But often they want you to play pop songs or to do a jazz version of one, which they now call "smooth jazz." But I wasn't really into that then and I don't think I am now, either.

I was born to do what I do and I knew that from a very early age. So I didn't want to deviate, although sidetracks are part of the lessons I had to learn to be honest to myself, you know? The better you know yourself, the better you know what it is that yourself is here to do. You've got people around you who may not like what you do, or try to tell you what to do, or you should do this, or make sure you have a good job....Hey, get the fuck out of my face. Please.

I know Joel's sons very well. Adam Dorn, the second son, was at my book signing, and he showed pictures of his father from the book and it was a beautiful thing. We're talking about getting back together to do a record together, Adam Dorn and my people. It's for the rappers who've been taking tracks from my records and didn't pay for them. So we're going to come right back at ya!

AAJ: Invitation to Openness came out at a time when Bitches Brew was casting a large shadow. It's such a free-form experimental departure from much of your other music at that time, which came across as more groove-and song-oriented. Did anyone mention that to you?

LM: That's what I think I'm still trying to say: No one would dare suggest to me what to do. Everything that came out on Atlantic was just out of what I wanted to, and I had a young guy who was willing to accept that and go with it if it felt right to him and he felt the quality was professional. He was on that side of the business. I'm doing the music. You do the quality check. Make sure everybody's recorded right, make sure the instrument is where it ought to be, proper mastering, proper mixing, and all that.

To me, my jazz is personal. You can't mess with my heart. And you can't mess with my music because my music is my heart.

AAJ: What sort of feedback did you receive after it was released from musicians or your friends and family?

LM: All I remember is that I felt like the clouds had opened up and I saw the light. It's not about anybody else. And I don't care—I'm sure somebody had something to say but I don't go around waiting for other people to comment on my music, is what I'm trying to say. I just did it. Just like why I had first gone to Atlantic: To grow, to expand and be different, to do other things.

Invitation to Openness came to me out of a dream. And it's connected to the time I was invited to Frank Zappa's freak party and that's when I realized what I had been trying to work out was almost happening right there at that party. He had a party for three hundred people and each one of the people who came in the door they gave an instrument to. This was for Frank Zappa's first record.

It was maybe a few years later, but I realized that what happened that night was where I was going and it was a clear road, a clear understanding, of what I had to do. So after my vision in a dream, I called my producer Joel Dorn the next day and said, "I got it. I know what I want to do for the next record." He was open to what I had to say, so I explained it to him and he asked, "When do you want to do it?" And I said, "Tomorrow." He said, "Well, we've got to get all these people in town." Fortunately, most of them were in town except for one person and that was the lead horn, Yusef Lateef; we called him, he was available, and he flew right in the very next day. And we did it right then and there—bam! And the musicians had no idea what was going to happen.
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