It’s a trip to meet Les McCann: a quick trip up the 101 to Van Nuys, where at the end of a heat-addled street, one of the enduring L.A.-based musicians of the past 50 years is lounging in a cozy apartment crowded with keyboards. And it‘s a head trip to meet McCann the man, the round mound of sound whose recording career has traversed gospel-infused acoustic music and the plugged-in reaches of improvised space-jazz on — by his own count — over 100 albums. McCann is warm and unreserved, equal parts great art and blue humor. On the wall is a life-size concert photo, taken by Les, of Miles Davis wearing stack-heel boots and dipping his lips into his mouthpiece, while on the back of the bathroom door there’s a bumper sticker that lets you know: MASTURBATING IS NOT A CRIME.
”I was here when the Lakers first came to town,“ McCann says, with the championship charm of a man who moved to L.A. in 1956. ”The days of Elgin Baylor, when Jerry West was a player. They drew 1,500 people a game, and season tickets were $500. Now they‘re $8,000, and those are the cheap seats. But I’ll tell you, Shaq is the most dominant player I have ever seen.“
At 17, McCann left his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, to join the Navy. Stationed in San Francisco, he heard Errol Garner‘s recording of ”Lullaby of Birdland“ in the P.X., and resolved to become a pianist himself. Not yet 21, McCann headed down to Los Angeles, took broadcasting classes at City College and played music at night. His trio became a fixture in clubs on the Sunset Strip, and McCann has kept a home in L.A. ever since.
It’s been 45 years since Les McCann came to L.A., and 39 since he and Lou Rawls teamed up to record the hit album Stormy Monday, which the two masters will reunite to perform in its entirety on July 18 at the Hollywood Bowl. Rawls, on the phone from his L.A. home, tells the tale behind their collaboration: ”In 1962, I was performing at a little coffeehouse on Sunset called Pandora‘s Box with Preston Epps, the Bongo King.“ Nick Venet, a Capitol Records producer, heard Rawls, signed him and decided to pair Rawls with a pianist he knew. ”Nick’s idea was to get Les, because at the time Les was playing a real gospel type of jazz, and I had just come out of a gospel group, the Pilgrim Travelers. Les was working at another coffeehouse called The Bit a few blocks down Sunset. When it came time to do the recording, we were both working. When we got off, we met up at Capitol at 1:30 in the morning and recorded until 6 or 7 a.m., about 35 tunes. I‘d look at Les and say, ’“Willow Weep for Me” in F,‘ and bang, we’d cut it. The recording was serious, but in between takes it was one joke after another, with Les drinking his health juice.“
For an album recorded in a single predawn session — the album-cover photo was taken afterward in the parking lot — Stormy Monday has endured. The spare rhythms provided by drummer Ron Jefferson‘s brushwork and Leroy Vinnegar’s mellow bass are the sublime setting for McCann‘s purposefully tender touch on the piano and Rawls’ candlelight croon, creating classic renditions of ”I‘d Rather Drink Muddy Water,“ ”Lost and Lookin’“ and ”God Bless the Child.“
Yet Stormy Monday hardly foreshadowed Rawls‘ tasty late-’60s forays helmed by madcap soundscapist David Axelrod (himself a living L.A. legend). Nor was it a harbinger for what was to come from McCann. In 1969, his blistering live recording of ”Compared to What“ with saxophonist Eddie Harris made their Swiss Movement LP both a million-seller and a lasting rare groove touchstone. Then, in 1972, McCann reached an artistic peak as Atlantic Records released two very different albums (both available on CD): the funky, earthy, vocal-dominated Talk to the People and the instrumental astro-traveling of Layers. Both electrified and electrifying, Layers proved that even while plugging in, Les lost none of the ecclesiastical feeling of his previous works. ”The pot wasn‘t that good then,“ says McCann. ”When you got something good, you’d go in and record. So you knew you‘d feel high when you listened to it, too!“
McCann is looking forward to the Hollywood Bowl night out with Rawls. ”I think they’re going to let me sing one song,“ he says, happy for the ideal opportunity to perform the vocal ballad he‘s best known for, ”With These Hands.“ Having recuperated from a debilitating stroke he suffered in ’95, McCann also gigs regularly with his group, Les McCann & His Nu Texas Savages, playing original, spontaneously created music.
”What we do is an odyssey, like Layers was. What was nothing becomes something. To me, discovery is true jazz. We‘re all improvising, trying to understand the purpose and contribute to the whole thing.“
Les McCann and Lou Rawls perform with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday, July 18.