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Les McCann/Mitchell-Ruff Trio: Twenty Special Fingers

C. Andrew Hovan By

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The idea goes like this. The hip and jazz-loving Joel Dorn and his folks as 32 Jazz have decided to introduce a series whereby they put out two albums by different artists that are somehow related in one package. This two-disc set brings together two Atlantic classics, the previously available Much Les from Les McCann and the long out-of-print The Catbird Seat by the Mitchell-Ruff Trio. So it tells us in the opening liner notes, McCann had expressed his affection for Dwike Mitchell's piano work on one of Dorn's radio shows back in the '60s, and clearly that influence is given palpable credence after listening to both of these sets back-to-back.

Recorded in 1969, Much Les was McCann's first effort for Atlantic and it offers a well-rounded sampler of the pianist's many talents. McCann's trio includes bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Donald Dean, plus the added percussion of Willie Bobo and Victor Pantoja on a few cuts. Much should be said too in regards to William Fischer's excellent arrangements. Obscure and unheard of in recent times, Fischer's previous achievements had been his arranging work for Nat Adderley's two superlative A&M/CTI sessions, You, Baby and Calling Out Loud.

The opening "Doin' That Thing" cooks at a slow boil with rumbling strings underneath and Leroy Vinnegar's bass walking us home. Fischer's use of the strings here and elsewhere is inspired and certainly not akin to the Montovani variety. McCann the vocalist steps forward next with a lush version of "With These Hands." The party really starts to heat up though with "Burnin' Coal," a gospel-tinged original with a "Compared to What" vamp and a vocal percussion section. Rounding things out are the relaxed and pretty originals "Benjamin" and "Roberta" and a funky take on "Love For Sale." While one gets the idea that commercial considerations were at play here, there's few albums in McCann's catalog that really give us the varied picture of the pianist that this one does.

Disc two features one of the rarer titles from the Atlantic catalog. Pianist Dwike Mitchell and bassist Willie Ruff teamed up as a duo in 1956 and recorded two albums for Epic before moving on to Roulette where they would cut five more sets. They never became anything close to a household name then and they still are only known today by a precious few jazz cognoscenti. Possibly hoping for greater rewards, the pair hooked up with Atlantic in 1961 and added a drummer to make it a trio and released two albums, The Catbird Seat and After This Message. The former is the topic of discussion here and the drummer present is Charlie Smith on this live recording from a club in Connecticut.

The inspiration that McCann gathered from Mitchell is easily heard by even the most novice of listeners. Ahmad Jamal's influence on Mitchell is also suggested by several slow and smoldering numbers. The title track is one of the highlights of the set, a stately blues line that finds the pianist building a climax towards the end of the performance with a sustained series of double-handed tremolos. "Street of Dreams" is given a brief, but pretty turn. "Gypsy in My Soul" is the only real up tempo number here, with "I'll Remember April" treated atypically as a ballad. Much of music in general reminds me of John Lewis' trio dates for Atlantic of about the same period. Like Lewis, Mitchell doesn't impress with fancy chops but chooses to sustain a mood and tell a story. In the end, The Catbird Seat proves to be a minor gem that fortunately was saved from what could have been years of obscurity in the vaults.


Track Listing:
Disc One: (Les McCann)- Doin' the Thing, With These Hands, Burnin' Coal, Benjamin, Love for Sale, Roberta

Disc Two: (Mitchell-Ruff Trio)- The Catbird Seat, Street of Dreams, So in Love, Con Alma, Gypsy in My Soul, I'll Remember April

Personnel:
Disc One: Les McCann, piano; Leroy Vinnegar, bass; Donald Dean, drums; Willie Bobo, timbales; Victor Pantoja, congas; Ron Carter, Winston Collymore, Noel DaCosta, Richard Elias, Emanuel Green, Theodore Israel, Warren Laffredo, Kermit Moore, Harvey Shapiro, strings; William Fischer, arranger/director

Disc Two: Dwike Mitchell, piano; Willie Ruff, bass; Charlie Smith, drums

Title: Twenty Special Fingers | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: 32 Records

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