Montreux musical history in 1969
How is it possible to mention one and only "highlight" ? When there are, every year at the Montreux Jazz Festival, so many unforgettable moments ? For certain people the meeting and performance on stage of George Duke, Alfonso Johnson, Billy Cobham and John Scofield in 1976 was a highlight. For some others Prince in 2007 or Pink Floyd at the Montreux Pavillon !
This is the story we want to tell you here.
Les McCann & Eddie Harris Swiss Movement, Recorded live Montreux June 22, 1969, Eddie Harris-sax, Benny Bailey-trumpet, Les McCann-piano, Leroy Vinnegar-bass, Donald Dean, drums.
- 1. Compared To What (Gene McDaniels) 8:41
- 2. Cold Duck Time (Eddie Harris) 6:31
- 3. Kathleen's Theme (Les McCann) 5:45
- 4. You Got It In Your Soulness (Les McCann) 7:08
- 5. The Generation Gap (Les McCann) 8:45
- 6. Caftan (Vinnegar) 6:35
Produced by NESUHI ERTEGUN
Cover Photo by GUISEPPE G. PINO
Cover Design by IRA FRIEDLANDER
Recording by STEPHEN INNOCENZI
This was the formula: Take the Les McCann Trio, put it onstage in the Montreux Casino before a packed audience, add two horn players, Eddie Harris and Benny Bailey, who had never played with Les before, give the musicians no rehearsal and no music, don't even tell the two soloists the tunes they are going to be called upon to play (not that they would know them anyway), set the tape rolling . . . and hope for a miracle.
That's precisely what producer Joel Dorn did--and, amazingly, it proved not to be a forlorn hope. If it wasn't exactly a miracle, it came pretty close, all things considered. There is an immediacy, an electricity, about the music on this album. You can almost feel the adrenaline flowing. The musicians are out there on a high wire with no safety net--and they are having a ball. The Les McCann Trio, with Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Donald Dean on drums, was the main attraction on June 18; the Eddie Harris Quartet, with Jodie Christian on piano, Melvin Jackson on bass, and Billy Hart on drums, topped the bill two days later. Both groups were extremely well received. On the following evening, the Les McCann Trio took part in an impromptu jam session, and one of the sitters-in was the superb trumpet and flugelhorn player Benny Bailey, from Cleveland, Ohio. Apart from a short break in the early '60s, Benny had been resident in Europe since 1953 and at that time was working with the Swiss Radio Band and living in nearby Lausanne. Les and Eddie had already agreed that it would be good to have a trumpet player on the date and, after enjoying Bailey's extroverted contribution to the jam session, they saw him as the obvious choice. But Bailey himself had reservations: "I was really the odd man out. Les' bag was one which Eddie had no problem with, but it really wasn't my kind of music. Still, when they asked me if I would play a set with them the following day, I thought, 'Why not?'" Benny Bailey says he didn't realize at first that the session was being recorded. "I didn't know any of the tunes, and there was no rehearsal. They had to call out the changes for me." Eddie Harris was equally unprepared: "I told Les just to play his usual stuff with the Trio and I would look over his shoulder to check the chords--because I used to be a piano player.
We had one microphone for Benny and me, and there was one television camera set right in front of us--but I couldn't stand out in front because I had to watch Les and play at the same time. Benny didn't really need the mike anyway--he's such a powerful player. "Every so often a technician would crawl up onstage and pull the microphone back to the front--and I would grab it again and pull it right back again. If I hadn't done that there wouldn't have been a record, because I wouldn't have been on mike. It turned out to be a magical concert." From the very first note that this quixotic quintet played, an unremitting groove was established--and it never let up. I mentioned earlier that, on the face of it, this ad hoc session didn't appear to have too much going for it. And the point is underlined when you consider the five pieces that constituted the original recorded program.
All of them were set at around the same tempo, between 34 and 38 bars per minute; four out of the five were in typically McCann funky mode; and two were 12-bar blues. Yet it is precisely because of the continuity of mood and feeling that this album has such an aura of sustained euphoria.
The opening track, "Compared To What," the sardonic social commentary written by Gene McDaniels, who, earlier in his career, had sung with the Les McCann band, proved unquestionably to be the hit of the album. It had been in the Les McCann library for about six years, and he had recorded it in September 1966 for the Limelight album Les McCann Plays The Hits. "But," says Les, "it was only just before we came to Montreux that year that we finally got the groove we wanted." Unquestionably, Les made the song his very own with the performance on this album.
Les recalls: "Benny didn't know the tune. I don't think he ever played a song that was on just one chord before. I shouted to him, 'We're in F, man--just play!' And he came up with a solo which was to become one of the most memorable on the album.
People used to ask me afterwards, 'Who was that trumpet player?'" And Benny remembers: "Some months after the concert, my sister wrote to me from the States and told me that 'Compared To What' was in the charts. I had totally forgotten about it by then. But when I went back to the States about ten years later, I found the only way people knew about me--especially young people--was through that record. That was amazing. They wouldn't have known me if it hadn't been for that album--so it proved very beneficial as far as my reputation was concerned. But, to tell the truth, I didn't really like the music too much--it was too commercial for me, not the kind of stuff I would normally choose to play. Still, the session developed such an irresistible groove that it just knocked everybody out. And the rhythm section was marvelous--Leroy's a tremendous walker on bass--he never wanted to take solos--and Donald Dean's a superbly swinging drummer." "Cold Duck Time" (the name refers not to refrigerated poultry but to a sparkling wine popular in the States at the time) is a 12-bar theme in F. Set to the same funky rhythm as "Compared To What," it was actually the group's encore. "We made this up at the last minute," Eddie Harris recalls. "I played the melody off the top of my head, and Benny, being an excellent musician, picked it up right away." After a characteristically raunchy solo from Eddie, Benny delivers six extrovert choruses with tremendous assurance and attack. Towards the end of the third chorus there is a great surge of applause. "I was playing with my eyes closed," Benny remembers, "and I thought, 'Wow, they are really digging me.' Then I opened my eyes and saw what the applause was really for--Ella has just walked into the room. She was so gracious--she apologized to me right there and then!" "Kathleen's Theme," on which Benny doesn't play, is the one piece on the album in straight-ahead 4/4 time and features some highly individualistic solo work from Harris. Then it is back to funk again with "You Got It In Your Soulness," a 12-bar blues in E flat which is fundamental McCann and features that tension-and-release effect of which he is master. There is some highly tasty solo work from Harris and a characteristically explosive solo from Bailey, followed by some typical down-home piano from Les, who displays another of his favorite devices--the reiterated semiquavers on the tonic note. The final selection from the original album, "The Generation Gap," is a modal piece which progresses from G minor through E flat minor with an A flat root to A minor and then B flat major before returning to G minor. Once again, Eddie has to call out the chords, but he and Benny sail through their solos as if they've been playing the piece for years. "Another thing I'll never forget about that session--just before we went onstage, and for the first time in my life, I smoked some hash. When I got on the bandstand, there I was, the new slimmed-down McCann, trying to look cool--and I didn't know where the hell I was. I was totally disoriented. The other guys said, 'OK, play, man!' Somehow I got myself together--and after that, everything just took off. "Swiss Movement was certainly a major landmark in my career. And it was a one-off phenomenon--something that can never be repeated."
But, happily, we can recapture the magic of that impromptu session through this album. And now I'll shut up so that you can sit down and listen.
Swiss Movement - Les McCann, Eddie Harris
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