Les Is More
A Tale Of Two Cities
Rahsaan Roland Kirk
The Man Who Cried Fire
As I’m writing these words, our… let’s just call him a “president”… is on a campaign blitz through ten states to boost GOP candidates in the upcoming midterm election. By the time you read it, however, this will be old news.
This sense of displacement is sometimes akin to how I feel reviewing these reissues. The four titles now being reissued on jazz “populist” Joel Dorn’s latest label, Hyena, were initially released in the ’80s on his first, Night Records. Since then and before now, he has been the producer behind Label M and 32 Records, cherry picking from the musical orchards of his past.
(See upcoming interview elsewhere on Ink 19 for more on Joel Dorn)
Someone once said that if you can’t tap your foot to it, it’s not a jazz song. This may be unacceptably limiting, but if we accept that definition, then “Work Song” from Cannonball Adderley’s Radio Nights has to be one of the jazziest songs I’ve ever heard. Man does that thing roll!
The performances on Radio Nights were originally broadcast live from a New York club in the late 1960’s. According to the notes, Cannon never planned a set before the group took the stage and the stuff they played depended more than usual on communion with the audience.
A Web site called “Jazzitude” informs me “some accused Adderley of ‘selling out’ due to the enormous popularity of his group’s funky crossover hits.” I guess we’re never going to get rid of the mentality that says hits automatically equals lack of substance… and Madonna makes that a continual question mark. One might think that having played in Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue sextet would earn the man some slack, but no, apparently not.
Of course, some 35 years after the fact, debates about this kind of thing seem sillier than they must have back in the day. Didn’t everyone know who these players were going to be? Didn’t they know that Miles Davis was going to be MILES DAVIS, or that Cannon’s group here would one day be called legendary?
Of course, they didn’t. And, the flip side for those of us coming to such greats late in life is that we approach them sometimes overly conscious of their places in the pantheon. Sometimes I think musicians can’t win for losing, even when they’re dead.
But I digress.
Now, back to the music… Let me put it this way: I suspect there may be better Cannonball Adderley CDs, but just because there’s better doesn’t mean this one is the worst. You dig? Besides, you have to love a jazz musician who plays improvisations on themes from Fiddler on the Roof, don’t you?
Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s The Man Who Cried Fire disturbs my cats. This is not necessarily a sour note to sound — Davis’s Sketches Of Spain has the same effect, and that’s one of Miles signature and singular albums, flawless according to the All-Music Guide (and I like it, too). Admittedly amazing in the breadth of his gifts, Kirk was called by that same AMG “Arguably the most exciting saxophone soloist in jazz history.” His facility is displayed here on tracks like “Bye Bye Blackbird,” in which he also briefly essays an impersonation of Miles. But I have found his sputters, skwonks, gulps and vocalizations a bit dreary on previous hearings, to be honest. One can’t help but admire the versatility and energy required, but I still find it a little monotonous on tracks like “You Did It You Did It” here, in which Kirk sounds like Mr. T having a heart attack while choking on a whistle.
Still, this material makes a stronger case for Kirk’s deserved prominence than I’ve heard before; “Night Train” is more to my liking, being a rare instance of him playing a bluesy, honking tenor (in duet with Kenny Rogers on baritone). Unfortunately, to my ears the rhythm section sometimes swings like a dusty crate here, but why pick?
“A Visit From the Blues,” from Kirk’s last concert in Paris, is flat-out beautiful before you know that. But all the more so when you read in the liner notes (reproduced from the original, as with all these titles) that Kirk was partially paralyzed following a stroke at the time. Not to mention being on dialysis.
Now about what I was saying about displacement, up top there…This is an excerpt from the lyrics to Les McCann’s “Compared To What,” a stomping, pounding live recording of which finishes up his compilation Les Is More, and which was a big hit for him and Eddie Harris in 1968: “The President, he’s got his war / Folks don’t know just what it’s for / Nobody gives us a rhyme or reason / Have one doubt, they call it treason“
1968, ladies and gentlemen, talking to us. I don’t know whether to be pleased because some things are timeless… or depressed, because… some things are timeless.
I seem to have digressed again.
These albums were originally drawn from “underground” tapes of shows, many of which the artists themselves did not know were being recorded. As a result the audio quality varies at times, a buzz being audible on Kirk’s “Multi-Horn Variations” for instance. But that ambiance is still kind of a kick, evocative: you can almost hear who’s listening and who is not. The records are full of affection for the music, the musicians, and the audience — even that square lady who’s not listening… yet.
After listening to Les Is More, I can hear why Joel Dorn says in the liner notes that McCann is ” a consummate entertainer.” Drawn from over 500 tapes in McCann’s personal collection, this is a portrait of art in the air, whether it’s on the radio (vintage interview snippets are used as links) or in the clubs: What you call your soul-jazz.
It starts with the rhythmic “Maleah,” an immediate hit with me. This is what I want from a piano player, sheets of cool beauty slowly melted by warm, silver ripples; followed a track later by the slow-burning “Samia.” Featuring Eddie Harris on tenor saxophone, this one somehow snuck by me on first two hearings, but on the third grabbed me in its embrace. This is why we never say things about these collections until we’ve gotten to know them, children. Next comes an interesting grouping of tracks on which McCann does not play; but recorded for himself in nightclubs of the ’60s. An “Unidentified Blues” by Stanley Turrentine, “Somewhere” and “Oh Babe” by Cannonball Adderley are the most welcome.
Getting back to McCann, “Little Blue Volkswagon” is a little too blue for me, but your mileage may vary, and besides, how blue can you get… as a man who should know once asked. McCann’s definitively slinky “Clapformation” follows.
Eddie Harris’s Tale of Two Cities combines live performances from 1983 and 1978, in Chicago and San Francisco, respectively. It doesn’t take a special ear to say that Harris was a remarkably skilled player, or to appreciate the quotes that he mixes into his “Chicago Serenade” (I counted “My Favorite Things,” “So What?” and I think, “The Odd Couple”). A multi-instrumentalist, besides playing tenor and electric (on the playful “Illusionary Dreams”) saxophones, Harris scats very likeably here on “Sonnymoon For Two.” He also plays a strangely elegant duet with his own beautiful (prerecorded) piano on “Don’t Let Me Go.”
More than any of the rest of these albums, this one leaves me curious to hear more from the featured artist. I suspect Harris deserves more attention; he was a player and composer of distinction who sounds like he would have been a fun guy to go see. Maybe even more fun to get to know, because as strong as the music is, that’s how friendly the little talks before and after the songs sound.
Harris came up in the ’60s, playing and recording on his own or, occasionally, with McCann, and had a few hits in that decade. But the next 25 years don’t seem to have been as good to him, though he continued releasing albums till his death in 1996.
The consensus seems to be that he was underrated. Based on the evidence I’ve heard presented so far on this, the Les McCann, and compilation appearances, I think you could certainly make a case for that. Harris also seems to have been torpedoed by purists for getting too close to rock (for more about him, I refer you to the interview with Dorn).
This is what I said in a review of the Head Jazz compilation that was one of the last releases on M, Dorn’s previous label: “M is producer Joel Dorn’s project, and it could be seen as a vanity label were it not for the fact that that the compilations and albums are so good (I haven’t heard one yet that wasn’t worthwhile to some degree) and that Dorn actually is a pretty big name in jazz.”
All this goes for Hyena, too. Loyalty to labels is a ridiculous thing, but the releases from Dorn and Co. over the past three years have been some of the most reliable and consistent I’ve heard. I was sorry when Label M lost it’s funding, and I’m glad that Dorn has a new place to play.
For completely selfish reasons, of course.
Hyena Records: http://www.hyenarecords.com/