Les McCann - keyboards, vocals; David Spinozza - guitar; Jimmy Rowser - bass; Buck Clarke - percussion; Donald Dean - drums
Introduced as "a group of musicians as funky as you have ever heard," keyboardist Les McCann and his crew took to the stage on this Saturday evening somewhere beyond second base on the outfield at Yankee Stadium. This July 8th appearance came shortly after the same unit (sans ubiquitous New York studio session guitarist David Spinozza) had returned from a performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland (not to be confused with McCann's triumphant appearance at Montreux in 1969 which was documented on the live Swiss Movement and yielded the anti-Vietnam protest song "Compared to What").
Opening with a funky jam in E to warm up the stage ("North Carolina," an instrumental track from McCann's current Atlantic album of the time, Talk to the People), they launch into a deluge of distortion-laced clavinet licks by McCann, wah-wah inflected guitar lines by Spinozza and bubbling electric bass from Jimmy Rowser, with a touch of tambourine from Buck Clarke and a slamming backbeat laid down by Donald Dean (who had played drums on "Compared to What" at Montreux three years earlier). Clavinet was THE sound of 1972 and McCann was one of the preeminent practitioners of that funky new keyboard, along with Stevie Wonder (who released his clavinet-laden "Superstition" in October of that year) and Billy Preston (who added to the clavinet vocabulary with his 1972 hit single, "Outa-Space"). At the peak of this raunchy funk jam, McCann abruptly stops the band cold to croon a few bars of "Comment," a song composed by Yusuf Rahman and Charles Wright (and the title track to McCann's 1970 Atlantic album), accompanying himself on gentle Fender Rhodes electric piano chords. McCann's soulful voice rings out through the House That Ruth Built as he delivers the message of love and universal brotherhood: "If all men are truly brothers, why can't we love one another? Love and peace from ocean to ocean, somebody please second my motion. If all men are born to be free, what about you and what about me?"
The band jumps back into the funk on "The Price You Got To Pay To Be Free," another socially relevant number in the vein of "Compared to What" written by Nat Adderley Jr., 16-year-old son of the famous jazz cornetist and member of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. Spinozza, who appeared on countless albums during the early '70s by a wide variety of artists ranging from pop stars like Paul Simon, Don McLean, Paul McCartney, Roberta Flack, Bette Midler and John Lennon & Yoko Ono to jazz musicians like Buddy Rich, Oliver Nelson, Grover Washington Jr. and Lou Donaldson, digs in on this vamp and delivers some searing guitar work. Near the end of this rhythmically charged number, McCann issues the plea "How much longer will it be?" before launching into a few verses of the moving hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing," a tune widely regarded in the African-American community as "the black national anthem." McCann and company close out this Newport Jazz Festival set with a soulful, slow-grooving rendition of "What's Going On," Marvin Gaye's anthemic, socially conscious masterpiece which had been released to universal acclaim the previous year.
Soul-jazz icon Les McCann was born on September 23, 1935 in Lexington, Kentucky. At age 21, he won a talent contest in the Navy as a singer that resulted in an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. After being discharged from the Navy, he formed a piano trio in Los Angeles and later signed a recording contract with Pacific Jazz, debuting as a leader in 1960 with Les McCann Plays the Truth. For the next four years, McCann recorded a string of soul-jazz albums with his trio and such special guests as tenor saxophonists Ben Webster and Stanley Turrentine, organist Richard "Groove" Holmes, trumpeter Blue Mitchell and guitarist Joe Pass. After signing with Atlantic Records in 1968, he had a major commercial breakthrough the following year with Swiss Movement, a live album recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival that featured his Atlantic labelmate Eddie Harris on tenor sax, and became tremendously successful on the strength of Eddie McDaniels' provocative anti-war protest tune "Compared to What," which was a huge Billboard pop chart success. He began experimenting with electric keyboards and ARP synthesizers on 1972's ambitious Layers then immersed himself in funk on Talk to the People, released later that same year.
McCann continued to release potent recordings for Atlantic through 1976 and maintained his visibility on the international concert and festival scene through the '80s and '90s, including a successful reunion tour with Eddie Harris in 1994. After suffering a stroke, McCann was sidelined in the mid '90s but he returned to the scene in 1995 and was still a powerful singer, as evidenced by his comeback album that year, Listen Up, and his subsequent release as a leader, 2002's Pump It Up. He also appeared as a special guest on saxophonist Bill Evans' 2001 outing, Soul Insider, and his 2003 follow-up, Big Fun, as well as on the Blind Boys of Alabama's 2003 release, Go Tell It On The Mountain. McCann's most recent recording was as a special guest vocalist on drummer Terri Lyne Carrington's 2009 outing, More To Say…Real Life Story. (Milkowski)