Classic Music Review: Swiss Movement by Les McCann and Eddie Harris

Despite Wynton Marsalis’ valiant efforts over the past couple of decades to reignite interest in jazz, the worldwide audience for jazz continues to decline. According to a piece on thejazzline.com, Nielsen’s 2014 Year-End Report showed that jazz accounted for 1.4% of the music consumption in the United States, tied with classical for last place.

Yes, Nielsen actually used the phrase “music consumption,” which tells you everything you need to know about the state of music today.

Jazz is not just losing popularity in the States. Major jazz festivals all over the world have adapted to the new emphasis on consumable music. Check out who’s appearing the major jazz festivals and you’ll see what I mean:

  • Montreal 2016: George Thorogood and the Destroyers, John Fogerty, Lauryn Hill, Noel Gallagher.
  • Montreux 2015: Lady Gaga, Sam Smith, Lenny Kravitz, Toto, Sinéad O’Connor, Jackson Browne.
  • New Orleans 2016: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Snoop Dogg, Beck, Elvis Costello, My Morning Jacket, Brandi Carlile, Arlo Guthrie

I can’t count how many times I used my favorite phrase, “Oh, for fuck’s sake” while reading those lists.

Jazz remains more popular in Europe than the USA, but since moving to France I really haven’t met too many Europeans in my generation who give a shit about jazz . . . certainly not as many as I expected to meet. The worldwide epicenter of jazz today is Japan, not Europe and certainly not the United States.

There has been a lot of speculation about why jazz is comparatively unpopular in its place of origin. Some believe that Americans prefer music with lyrics over instrumental music—hence the incredible popularity of rap and hip-hop. That assertion finds support in Americans’ relatively weak interest in classical music, another primarily instrumental form. Some blame Charlie Parker and his pals for disconnecting jazz from danceable rhythms and making it too “esoteric.” There’s some truth in that assertion—I don’t know anyone today who associates jazz with nightclub dancing. “Jazz dance” in the United States today is either a performance art or a form of exercise, not swinging your hips to Cab Calloway or Benny Goodman.

One cause I haven’t seen mentioned is the insufferable snobbery of many jazz critics and fans. I think a lot of the reason jazz is a niche art form today is because the people who most appreciate it want it to remain a niche, an exclusive club open to the select few who display the correct sense of aesthetics and have mastered the esoteric vocabulary of the genre. Being a jazz fan is a way to separate oneself from the uncouth and unacceptable.

When the uncouth and unacceptable think about jazz, what comes to mind is something called “smooth jazz,” the kind of stuff you hear from Kenny G. Smooth jazz is kind of like Wonder Bread: all the texture and variation has been removed. Smooth jazz is another compromise in a series of compromises to make jazz more accessible to the masses so that jazz artists can make a living somewhere north of the poverty level.

Miles Davis was one of the first to recognize that jazz needed to expand beyond the cul-de-sac, and you can hear his efforts in the recordings In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Thoroughly confused by the direction he was taking, the critics labeled his work fusion. While Miles managed to turn some people into jazz buffs (and piss off a whole lot of purists), the value of the recordings proved to be the influence they had on a generation of rock and funk musicians, opening up new directions in those fields.

Even before Miles forged his unique and controversial path there was another attempt to increase the population of jazz aficionados. This was a marketing-term-turned-genre called soul jazz. It started when Riverside Records decided to market one of Cannonball Adderley’s records with that moniker. The most popular soul jazz recording (according to the Cashbox charts of the day) was “The In Crowd” by The Ramsey Lewis Trio, but you can hear soul jazz influence in many recordings, from Steely Dan’s efforts to the more recent releases from Lake Street Dive.

The first album of the new genre to make a splash was the subject of this review: Swiss Movement. Performed live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1969 without benefit of rehearsal, Les McCann, Eddie Harris, Benny Bailey, Leroy Vinnegar and Donald Dean helped put Montreux on the map as a jazz mecca. The album was a crossover hit, topping the jazz charts and winding up #2 and #29 on the Billboard R&B and LP charts, respectively. Swiss Movement is a fabulous listening experience, primarily because there was a whole lot of improvisation going on, and regardless of what Donald Fagan and Walter Becker think, the essence of jazz is improvisation.

The concert opens with one of the greatest protest songs ever written, Gene McDaniels’ “Compared to What?” Some of the older baby boomers and students of pop music history in the audience may read that name and say, “Wait a minute—you mean Gene McDaniels—the guy who did “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” back in 1961?” Yep! After his fifteen minutes of fame, Gene cashed in and moved to Scandinavia to focus on songwriting. With the perspective of a black man freed from the institutional racism that dominates the scene in the land of the free, and seeing his home country coming apart because of an insane war in Southeast Asia, Gene let it all out in “Compared to What?” The song was originally recorded by Roberta Flack, whose manager at the time happened to be Les McCann. Roberta’s version is very smooth and down-tempo; in Les McCann’s hands, it’s explosive.

Les establishes the soul-funk beat on his piano with a repeated percussive riff before letting bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Donald Dean take over the rhythm. Les establishes the musical themes, riding a beat that will sound very Ramsey Lewis to anyone who remembers his work. As the music builds, Eddie Harris enters in the background with a warm up riff that’s more hard bop than soul jazz, eventually settling down to a two-note oscillation as the rest of the combo ramps up the volume, then a single BAM! on the snare (a sound that will become an important punctuation point in the verses) and the music settles into an easy groove while Les leans into the mike:

I love the lie and lie the love
A-hangin’ on, with 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!) BAM!
Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what?

Les McCann’s voice is warm and husky, and his syncopated phrasing is spot-on, especially on the key line “Possession is the motivation that is hanging up (pause) the goddamn nation.” Gene McDaniels nailed the essence of the USA with those words, and Les McCann infused them with a combination of disgust and urgency, like a man who is sick to death of all the bullshit.

After a brief interlude featuring the two horn soloists playing in tandem, Les continues the narrative:

Slaughterhouse is a-killin’ hogs
Twisted children killin’ frogs
Poor dumb rednecks rollin’ logs
Tired old lady kissin’ dogs
I hate the human love of that stinking mutt (I can’t use it!) BAM!
Try to make it real — compared to what?

Before you go into a PETA-inspired rant, McDaniels wasn’t saying that animals don’t deserve your smoochies. He inserted the word “human” before describing that love, making the point that people often use pets as substitutes for human contact, a way to avoid the challenging world of human communication. Les delivers that line with force and conviction, and even though I luvvy-duvvy my widdle baby miniature schnauzer (mwah! mwah! mwah!), she is in no way a stand-in for the real and wonderful people in my life. She’s not even a stand in for the assholes in my life—and assholes are a critical component of the human experience.

I shouda been a philosopher.

The horns are a little more warmed-up for the second instrumental passage, with Eddie Harris leaping octaves with ease. The third verse of the song deals with the Vietnam War . . . but it could have been written about Iraq, Afghanistan or any of the other silly and sordid adventures that turn the USA into a collective of blind, patriotic morons instead of a country where differences of opinion are respected and honored:

The President, he’s got his war
Folks don’t know just what it’s for
Nobody gives us a rhyme or reason
Half of one doubt, they call it treason
We’re chicken-feathers, all without one nut. God damn it! BAM!
Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what?

God damn, I love the way Les McCann explodes with that “God damn it!” It expresses the hatred of war and the absurdity of macho patriotism as effectively as any anti-war song or novel. God damn it! Knock it the fuck off! Killing doesn’t solve a goddamn thing, people!

Benny Bailey is feeling it on the trumpet during the next instrumental passage and earns a well-deserved round of applause as Les takes up the topic of religion:

Church on Sunday, sleep and nod
Tryin’ to duck the wrath of God
Preachers fillin’ us with fright
They all tryin’ to teach us what they think is right
They really got to be some kind of nut (I can’t use it!)
Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what?

Amen, brother!

Benny comes back with some more shimmering riffs, then the combo takes it down a notch to leave some space for Eddie Harris to do a more complex solo than the one we heard during the intro. Les delivers the final verse before taking off on a fabulous piano solo:

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?! 

Eddie Harris delivers a lengthy and superb tenor sax solo before Les wraps it up with the single line, “Tryin’ to make it real compared to what?” I join the long-gone crowd at Montreux in joyous and grateful applause.

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Les introduces the follow-up song by saying, “This is a song written by Eddie Harris, and today was the first time we ever saw it—so with your help, we might do it.” The song is “Cold Duck Time,” a song titled after a horrid sparkling libation invented by a winemaker in Detroit (!) based on a “recipe” from an 18th century Saxon prince who liked to mix all the dregs in the bottom of the wine bottles with Champagne. My French mother calls it “putain dégueulasse” (fucking disgusting) and my father remembers that a version by the Paul Masson winery became quite popular and was often handed out to guests during intermission at winery concerts. This would have been in the early 70’s when Americans had yet to discover they had a potentially world-class wine region in the Napa and Sonoma valleys, and generally drank wine of the genre known as “sweet and sickening.” I’ll forgive Eddie Harris for his lack of oenophilia and move on to his composition.

Opening with a nice little bass pattern from Leroy Vinnegar, the combo takes a few seconds to find the groove, but come together pretty quickly around the motif. Eddie Harris dominates the early proceedings with a relaxed, mellow tone; as the solo proceeds, he adds some stop-time growls that are to die for before handing things over to Benny Bailey. Benny really gets the crowd into this one with some superb flights of chromatic fancy on his trumpet. Les McCann brings it down slightly but still throws in a few nimble piano runs to keep the piece on simmer. We return to the main theme, played in tandem by Eddie and Benny, who end with a surprisingly strong flourish. “Cold Duck Time” proves to be a gas, despite its titular origins, and a great dance number to boot. If you can’t shake your hips to this one, you may want to check your testosterone or estrogen levels, as the case may be.

Les McCann’s “Kathleen’s Theme,” comes next, opening in a more reflective, reserved mood. Once the core theme is established, the rhythm shifts to light finger-snapping mode featuring Eddie Harris feeding off McCann’s comps. Eddie had been playing in more of a bop style in the years before this record, and you can definitely hear the influence in the whirling melody, even with the slower tempo. Despite the lack of rehearsal time, Eddie comes through big here, and the warm applause he receives when the piece shifts back to the intro is well-earned.

The more energetic “You Got It in Your Soulness” comes next, basically a 12-bar blues with a brief transition chord to the V. The combo varies the pattern a couple of minutes into the song to a repeated root chord with occasional modification that allows Eddie Harris to riff a while, with slightly less intensity than the rhythm section. Benny Bailey gets his turn and delivers a solo that sounds like a combination of bird melody and hard kisses that knocks it out of the park. Behind both solos, Leroy Vinnegar does some very nimble work on the bass. Right before the return to the main theme, Les does some low-level scat . . . more like satisfied grunts than formed sounds . . . and you know he’s feeling it. With all the musicians in the groove, “You Got It in Your Soulness” qualifies as an absolute stunner.

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The original album ends with “The Generation Gap,” the phrase used to define the faux crisis between the war generation and the Baby Boomers. The gap disappeared when most of the Baby Boomers grew up and became greedy stick-in-the-muds just like their parents. Jazz titles are usually off-the-top-of-my-head creations and I don’t really hear anything in the musical structure of the piece that reflects a stylistic gap symbolically representing a generation gap. The combo really uses the piece as a platform for the band members to show their stuff, and since the chord structure is similar to “Compared to What?” with its series of rising chords, I’ve always considered this piece to be the instrumental version of the opener. This may imply that the piece is boring and repetitive, but it isn’t—the instrumentalists have a greater opportunity to explore the musical theme. The horn solos here are as strong as anything else on the album, and the command of dynamics is much stronger than on any other of the pieces—they’ve had time to warm up and connect with each other, and it shows.

For all its “soul jazz” trappings, Swiss Movement remains both an accessible and appealing jazz record. The rhythms aren’t as intense as Coltrane’s and the melodies aren’t as brilliantly unpredictable as Monk’s, but all these guys were accomplished jazz musicians who knew their stuff. Les McCann did more crossover work than the others, but even the novice listener should be able to appreciate the hard bop style of Benny Bailey in the context of more familiar rhythms. Swiss Movement also confirms the longstanding truth that jazz is an exciting live performance medium open to more frequent improvisation than rock or soul. There’s nothing like sharing a moment of music when the players are also the creators, for that moment is a blessed form of intimacy that stays with you forever.

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Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

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