It was inevitable that the homecoming of Les McCann last night at the Lyric Theatre would eclipse his actual concert performance. After all, this was the soul-jazz titan’s first Lexington show since the early ‘80s. That, along with the fact that many friends and family members were on hand to cheer him on, provided an unavoidable sense of pageantry to the evening.
But equally immediate were questions among audience members about what kind of performance McCann was physically capable of giving. Sidelined years ago by a stroke and confined last night to a wheelchair, the biggest fear from a patron standpoint was that the keyboardist/vocalist, who has been such a tireless jazz force over the decades, would fold under his own mammoth reputation.
Obviously, the years factored into the performance. Situated behind an electric keyboard that emitted a sound more akin to vibraphone than a piano, McCann stuck largely to sparse rhythmic comping behind a fine quartet led by saxophonist Javon Jackson (a band that included the outstanding indie-jazz guitarist David Gilmore, which was a nice bonus). But the vitality that quickly surfaced in McCann came not from his playing, which, light of touch as it was, seldom wavered from the Jackson band’s subtle groove and swing. It was instead apparent on his face. From note one, McCann was connected to every ounce of music being made around him. He took it in and then reflected the resulting joy through broad electric smiles.
In other words, McCann was still was one seriously hip and involving stylist. He would rock assuredly along with the serious soul flow of Cold Duck Time from his career defining Swiss Movement album (last night’s version illuminated Gilmore’s playing as well as the Jackson band’s sharp ensemble sound) and then chill with the relaxed balladry of With These Hands. The latter was performed largely a glowing solo piece by McCann before Jackson added a studied, complimentary run on tenor sax as a coda.
There were honors galore, too. Representatives from the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame “reinducted” McCann last night between songs (he was absent from his official induction in 2008) while Mayor Jim Gray’s office sent a decree proclaiming yesterday as Les McCann Day. The singer stole all of his own thunder, though, with commentary and remembrances that were often wildly frank (and, frankly, hysterical). One particularly striking memory was of working at the Lyric in his youth. But we can’t repeat that tale here.
Of course, all of that paled next to the rolling, soulful and still topical groove-a-thon that was Compared to What. Over 44 years have passed since McCann made the Gene McDaniels tune a career-defining hit on Swiss Movement. But last night, it was still a grand party piece – a tune full of fresh soul, drive and sass.
The homecoming honors certainly fit the occasion. But Compared to What proved that once you give McCain a smart tune and a killer groove, he’s set, quite literally, for life.