Anchoring one of the two recordings Les McCann claims as personal favorites from his catalog (1973’s Layers) is a two-minute college of keyboards of percussion cut at a time when the champion jazz stylist was pursuing new electric sounds, grooves and arrangements.
The title of the piece is It Never Stopped in My Hometown. Judging by the electronic cool and whispery percussive voices encasing the music, one would have to think McCann’s hometown was one hip place.
The veteran keyboardist, vocalist and composer is, of course, a Lexington native. While he left the Bluegrass in the mid ‘50s “like a bullet from a gun,” as his longtime producer Joel Dorn put it in the liner notes to the 1993 anthology album Relationships, McCann has regularly acknowledged the inspirations he forged in Lexington and the roles they played in the soul-jazz sound he pioneered in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.
Topping the list were his memories of the Lyric Theatre, the venue that was Lexington’s prime performance outlet for jazz and R&B acts during McCann’s youth. If he wasn’t working at the Lyric (“taking tickets, cleaning up, seating people, a little bit of everything”), he was taking in all kinds of sounds that enhanced a love of music he said he was born with.
McCann, 84, will perform his first hometown concert in over 30 years tonight at the Lyric as special guest of the band led by saxophonist Javon Jackson.
“I used to work at the Lyric when it first opened because my house was right around the corner on Eastern Ave.,” McCann said. “That’s when I first got hooked on the music. I saw Dizzy Gillespie there and artists like (‘50s era jazz/R&B stars) Wynonie Harris and Tiny Bradshaw. I saw a lot of the black chitlin’ circuit bands. Back then, that was the only place in town for that music.
“My mother didn’t mind. I told her I had a job nearby and was making money, so it was all good.”
By the late ‘60s, having long since relocated to Los Angeles, McCann was at the forefront of a new jazz sound. The strong, lyrical stride of the piano trio recordings he cut up to that point had evolved into music incorporating electric keyboards, McCann’s soul-fortified singing and a master saxophonist/collaborator by the name of Eddie Harris.
A performance by a quintet led by McCann and Harris at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival was recorded and released later that year as the Swiss Movement album. The recording, along with its leadoff cover of Gene McDaniels’ Compared to What, became cornerstones of a mounting soul-jazz movement as well as career defining works for McCann.
“That’s the biggie of all times,” he said of Swiss Movement. “But I’ve made many kinds of records. Two of my favorites through the years were Layers and Invitation to Openness (released in 1972). That one (Openness) came to me in the middle of a dream one night. I called my record company the very next day and said, ‘I’ve got to do this.’ Fortunately, I had a producer (Dorn) that trusted me.”
Among the artists reared on McCann’s soul-jazz innovations was Jackson, who would go on to collaborate with such greats as Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard and the legendary scout for young jazz talent, Art Blakey. Jackson played with Blakey in the last lineup of his heralded Jazz Messengers.
“I met Les McCann when I met Eddie Harris during my time with Art Blakey,” Jackson said. “We were on a tour in Russia. The bill was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Sun Ra and Les McCann and Eddie Harris. Les was always very nice to me. In my mind, I was always hopeful to play with him later on. I was a fan of his music because my folks used to play Swiss Movement all the time. So I was aware of Les and how dynamic he was.”
“I met Javon when he was 17 years old,” McCann recalled. “We were in Moscow and he said to me at that moment, ‘Man, I love your playing.’ I said, ‘How would you know? You’re too young.’ He said, ‘When I have my own group someday, I want you to be in my band.’ I said, ‘I’ll be more than happy to.’
“I had a stroke a few years ago. Once I returned home from the hospital, I get a call from Javon. He said, ‘Are you ready to be in my band?’ I told him I could only use part of one hand. That’s all I had. Of course, I could still sing. He said, ‘I just want you in my band, period.’ And we’ve been together ever since.”
Decades of playing have left McCann with limited use of his hands. “I’ve had a rough life with my hands and fingers from the way I played, which is kind of a hard fisted approach to the piano. The last two or three years, my fingers just said, ‘Nope. We ain’t doing that no more.’ So I would go to therapy all the time.”
Jackson doesn’t see age or physical restrictions diminishing the soul and sprit that still dominates McCann’s performance work.
“You’ve got to remember this music we call soul-jazz was basically initiated by Les,” Jackson said. “What that means is that all of his experience and history come to the stage. Even though he might not necessarily play with the same fervor he had in his ‘30s, there is something about his spirit that takes the music to another level.
“I never really thought about him not being the man that he was or anything like that because he still gives so much of himself.”
The Javon Jackson Band with Les McCann performs 7:30 tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third St. Tickets are $25, $35. Call (859) 280-2218 or got to www.lexingtonlyric.com.