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Les McCann - Invitation to Openness

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Artist: Les McCann

Album: Invitation to Openness

Label: Water

Review date: Nov. 23, 2004

An expanded Aquarian consciousness had reached well into the jazz mainstream by the early 1970s: Eastern religions, rock, soul, Black Power, and wah-wah pedals were among the elements that coalesced and mutated within the style called fusion. Used record and CD reissue bins are loaded now with products of that era; recordings that range from sublimely cheesy to perfectly sublime.

Pianist Les McCann’s work from the period falls somewhere between those two poles. Rooted in the hard bop and soul-jazz styles, McCann was known as a masterful groove player. When he made the switch to Fender Rhodes, his style was often more classical than other players of the electric instrument: he seemed to maintain a stronger sense of varied touch and dynamics.

Invitation To Openness, recorded in 1971, was intended, in part, as mood music: exotica and erotica for an intimate nocturnal encounter. To that effect, McCann, on the sidelong “The Lovers,” set up for his ensemble a slow-building Bolero-type groove, rooted in solid electric bass, shimmering and chiming Fender Rhodes electric piano, and a panoramic sonic vista of various percussion instruments.

McCann’s own nimble and always-inventive Rhodes leads the way through the piece and defines the sound field, and he overlays these efforts with sinuous Moog synth lines. Session legend guitarist David Spinozza, with distortion and wah dialed in, seems to be playing ecstatically – over his head, even – as the groove thickens: he hits, in some moments, the Gemini intensity of both the smooth Lucas and shredding Cosey that would follow in the Miles Davis band. Corky Hale’s harp glissandos add an otherworldly feel, while the percussion section, anchored by the solid backbeats of funkmasters Alphonze Mouzon and Bernard Purdie, provides both groove and surprise.

But the secret weapon on “The Lovers” is the plaintive, moaning oboe of Yusef Lateef: his snake-charmer lines and breathy, woody tones give the piece much of its sense of vulnerability and exotic surrender.

The cuts that follow – comprising side two of the original LP – are solid and exploratory long, funky soul-jazz grooves with touches of pyschedelia, earthier in feeling than “The Lovers.” I suspect that they were seldom listened to by those who used side one of the original record for its, um, intended purpose.

Invitation has all the hallmarks of the best records produced by Philly legend Joel Dorn: thick, tactile grooves, spacious percussion, a suave urbanity to go along with a sense of adventure and experimentation. It also established directions for Dorn and McCann to pursue in producing the unsung masterpiece Layers, McCann’s ruminative autobiography and self-portrait in multi-tracked keyboards that was to follow in 1972 .

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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