Les McCann + Eddie Harris, “Compared To What” (1969): One Track Mind

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Ahhhh, Friday night. As R.L. Burnside would say, “I know godd—ed well it’s party time.”

But the blues isn’t the only place you’ll find the Good Lord’s name uttered in vain. Thanks to Les McCann, you can also find that commandment broken in a soul-jazz ditty that he made a classic of the vein. That’s right, you old hippies, you know I’m talking about “Compared To What.”

The song was actually written for McCann by 60’s R&B singer Gene McDaniels, the man who also penned the 1974 hit “Feel Like Makin’ Love” for Roberta Flack. Now, McCann is a guy who needs no introduction on this site. His partner in crime for this song, Eddie Harris, was also a giant in the jazz of the greasy variety, his tenor sounding as righteous as Maceo’s alto.

Recorded live at the fledgling Montreaux Jazz Festival in the year of Woodstock, “Compared To What” is the opening track of the McCann/Harris Swiss Movement release. Anticipation builds on the extended intro until Les gives it a soulful rendering starting at the 2:02 mark:

1. Love the lie and lie the love
Hangin’ on, with a push and shove
Possession is the motivation
that is hangin’ up the Goddamn nation
Looks like we always end up in a rut (everybody now!)
Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what?

2. Slaughterhouse is killin’ hogs
Twisted children killin’ frogs
Poor dumb rednecks rollin’ logs
Tired old ladies kissin’ dogs
Hate the human, love that stinking mutt (I can’t stand it!)
Try to make it real — compared to what?

3. The President, he’s got his war
Folks don’t know just what it’s for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Have one doubt, they call it treason
We’re chicken-feathers, all without one gut (God damn it!)
Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what? (Sock it to me, now)

4. Church on Sunday, sleep and nod
Tryin’ to duck the wrath of God
Preacher’s fillin’ us with fright
Tryin’ to tell us what he thinks is right
He really got to be some kind of nut (I can’t use it!)
Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what?

5. Where’s that bee and where’s that honey?
Where’s my God and where’s my money
Unreal values, crass distortion
Unwed mothers need abortion
Kind of brings to mind ol’ young King Tut (He did it now)
Tried to make it real — compared to what?!

Flack’s original version preceded this just barely but there’s been scores of other versions since this definitive rendition; Ronnie Laws, Brian Auger, even Al Jarreau. None of those cats could give the song the sass that McCann, Harris and the rest of the band brought to it on that June day in Switzerland.

But after all these years of them trying, a most unlikely source, the space rock band Mushroom finally came up with a worthy runner-up in 2000.

An instrumental group, they brought in an obscure but McCann-like vocalist by the name of Gary Floyd to handle the incendiary lyrics while Harris’ part is filled in by Jon Birdsong’s cornet with Carroll Ashby’s trombone adding a second soloist. Mushroom adds a few far out electronic effects to the proceedings, but the psychedelic sounds actually fit the of-its-time lyrics. And the groove is just about the same as the original.

The only thing it lacks is that electricity of performing it live. But still, it’s not a bad rendition a t’all.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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