Les McCann – Invitation to Openness (1972; 2015 reissue)

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“The Lovers” is both central to the free-form spirit of 1972’s Invitation to Openness, and to understanding Les McCann’s little-heard ability to blend deep soul and outside concepts. Completely improvised, the track works as an extended, 26-minute argument for something McCann didn’t do nearly enough: Use his typically overlooked second career at the electric piano to race toward jazz’s frontiers.

Les McCann had risen to fame, of course, in an acoustic jazz trio setting, playing R&B-drenched music as it had been played forever. His early apex happened with the 1969 smash Swiss Movement (featuring Eddie Harris, and the ageless “Compared to What”), followed with the sequel Second Movement. By the turn of the ’70s, however, Les McCann had become enamored with the day’s emerging mainstream soul sounds, principally that of the electric piano.

McCann then assembled a 13-member group to improvise for producer Joel Dorn around a few loose themes, very much in the style of Miles Davis’ contemporaneous recordings, and with a similarly talented all-star cast. The lineup of five percussionists on Invitation to Openness included Ralph McDonald and Bernard Purdie. Guitarist Cornell Dupree could be found tangling with multi-talented David Spinozza — just as the latter was rising to fame for his work with Paul McCartney on Ram. Yusef Lateef, Alphonse Mouzon and regular McCann contributors Jimmy Rowser and Donald Dean were also on hand.

There was nothing more to it, really. No charts, no complex instructions beyond a wink or a nod. They gathered inside Atlantic’s studios at 60th and Broadway, and began to build a masterpiece around Les McCann’s main voice. With no rules, everything was on the table. “The Lovers” even includes shimmering harp work by Corky Hale, adding another exotic element to this indescribably unique triumph.

“The Lovers” initially took up all of Side 1 on Invitation to Openness, which has been newly reissued by Omnivore with the addition of a live take on Les McCann’s signature “Compared to What.” He rounded out the original release with two other cuts, “Breaux J. Poo Boo” (an electrified update of a track from McCann’s earlier Limelight) and “Poo Pye McGoochie” (featuring these funky, funky asides from Lateef, who sets his flute down for a turn on tenor). But Invitation to Openness had already made its mark.

“The Lovers” is the sound of someone loosing himself from the bonds of expectation, and certainly from the oft-staid strictures of soul jazz — which too often settles for groove instead of searching for meaning. Les McCann managed, for a fizzy half hour or so, to combine these two disparate impulses. It was music that moved both your hips and heart.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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