Javon Jackson & Les McCann: Two for the Road

Legendary pianist and singer performs shows with Javon Jackson’s band at clubs and festivals throughout the U.S

Many times in jazz the personnel that comes together in a special way is the result of second choices or just plain serendipity. So too with the pairing of Javon Jackson and Les McCann who have been performing together at clubs and festivals, including a recent concert at the Cape May Jazz Festival. Seeing the two mesh onstage, it would be hard to imagine that the legendary McCann was originally a sub or fill-in.

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Javon Jackson and David Gilmore at 2010 Cape May Jazz Festival
By Ken Franckling
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Les McCann at 2010 Cape May Jazz Festival
By Ken Franckling
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Les McCann
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Javon Jackson

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About three years ago, Jackson had an upcoming performance for his soul-jazz group scheduled at John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom Room in San Francisco and his organist, the great Dr. Lonnie Smith, was unable to make it. Acting on a whim as much as anything, Jackson called Eddie Harris’s widow and mentioned that he was in a bind and did she think Les McCann might be interesting in subbing for Smith in that gig in the Bay area. She encouraged him to call McCann at his home in Southern California and, as Hooker himself sang, “Boom Boom Boom” the two hit it off onstage and were soon performing other shows together and connecting across generations. Since that show in 2007, they’ve done about fifty shows together and jazz audiences are getting another look at the 75-year-old McCann, who appears rejuvenated by the collaboration.

Maybe that serendipity is fitting given that the McCann and Harris pairing that produced the Swiss Movement performance and recording was also a somewhat chance pairing. As Les McCann wrote in his Farewell tribute piece to Joel Dorn for JT, it was the producer Dorn who suggested that the two get together. “He’s the guy who told me, ‘When you go to Switzerland, there’s a guy over there that I like very much named Eddie Harris,” wrote McCann. “Why don’t you guys see if you can get together and come up with something?’ And that’s how Swiss Movement came about. It was Joel’s idea. My trio was scheduled to play there at the Montreux Jazz Festival and Eddie’s band was supposed to play there as well, and since we were both on Atlantic Records Joel suggested that we get together for one set of music. He had already discussed it with [Montreux promoter] Claude Nobs and the higher-ups at Atlantic and they all thought it was a great idea. We never had a rehearsal. I did get together with Eddie ahead of time to discuss the tunes, but that record was almost 90-percent spontaneous on the stage. Between songs, I had to sing the chorus into the guys’ ears and remind them of the changes. And that’s how we did it. It was another case of divine intervention.”

Jackson acknowledges that he had absorbed that particular McCann & Harris album by osmosis. “I heard that recording my whole life and I always liked it,” he recalls. “My mother played that particular recording a lot in the house, so I’ve heard that as long as I can remember.” Jackson’s group performs a few songs from that album, including “Compared to What” and “Cold Duck Time,” and Jackson had no problem stepping into the Harris role, in part because of his personal relationship with the late saxophonist and in part because of his own identity forged as a sideman with Art Blakey and other greats, and established as a bandleader all his own. Growing up in Denver, Jackson would check out Harris when he came to town and over the years the two developed a close bond, both musically and personally. “I’ve known Eddie my whole life so actually it’s an honor to be in the role,” Jackson says. “I don’t look at it as a particular challenge but I do come from that spirit anyway so when we play a song like “Compared to What” or “Cold Duck Time” or we do any of those kinds of songs that have that spirit on there, there may be some references to how he would attack a particular piece of music.”

To be fair, there is plenty of Javon Jackson in the way he plays tenor while leading his group that features McCann; he isn’t simply going up there and recycling Eddie Harris riffs. Also influenced strongly by John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, Jackson established himself as a formidable player playing with another legendary bandleader—Art Blakey—who demanded that his sidemen play like themselves. Jackson would go on to his own solo career with over a dozen records as a leader on Criss Cross, Blue Note and Palmetto Records. He also has performed with several other legendary elders of jazz, including Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, Elvin Jones and, most recently, Freddie Redd. But it’s Blakey who seems to have had the greatest impact on Jackson, at least when it comes to the nuances of leading a band.

Asked about how people perceive Les McCann these days, Jackson quickly cites Blakey and his advice about keeping out there in front of audiences. “He would say, ‘If people don’t hear you, they forget about you,’” Jackson explains. “So, it’s good, because people haven’t seen his [McCann’s] name and he’s been kind of inactive largely due to the stroke he had about ten years ago. He’s starting to get back out again and we’ve been having a lot of fun. People are saying about Les, ‘Hey, wow, we want to see you again.’ It’s a win for him, it’s a win for me, it’s a win for the audience. When everyone wins, it’s even more special.”

Taking in a set by Jackson and McCann, audiences do seem to react as if they’ve won the lottery. In Cape May, McCann doesn’t even need to sing the chorus to “Compared to What.” He merely points to the crowd who sing the lines perfectly on cue and in tune. Jackson says that doing those old tunes is fun for the group and the audience. “It allows Les to come out and for people to see him and for Les to get some flowers, if you will, and say what he wants to say. And it lets the audience hear some of those songs that they’re acquainted with. But you notice that the other night we did a song which was called ‘Vu Ja De,’ which is an adaptation of “De Ja Vu” from the record. It’s updated in a way we had a lot of fun with it. At some point you can’t live there just redoing old material. That’s why I respect a person like Wayne Shorter. Wayne’s always moving. Well, some people don’t really like that. They want him to play the way he played on this recording or that recording. But he’s decided not to go back.”

However, it seems that the audiences that are connecting to Jackson’s band with McCann aren’t just older listeners viewing the show through the rose-colored tint of nostalgia. Jackson is finding that young people are responding as well, and doing it based solely on the sound and the feel of the music. “One thing about Les—it’s infectious. When there’s a pocket, when there’s a groove there, it doesn’t matter what age, people connect to it because this thing is so rooted in feelings and emotions and the church and all that. That kind of feeling gets to everybody, no matter what age. They might not know the lyrics or even the tunes, but when you play a concert at, say, the Playboy Jazz Festival and you look down and you see all those young people, who may not know who Les McCann is, the minute that groove comes in, they’re all moving their heads and they’re all grooving to it.”

No question, McCann is still playing in the pocket and not just when soloing on his own tunes. What’s also interesting is how well McCann has fit in with the group. In the recent show in Cape May, McCann was locked in with the rhythm section during solos by Jackson or guitarist David Gilmore. Jackson says that many people don’t know how great an accompanist or ensemble player McCann is. “In some of his earliest trios, he would play standards—things he did long before ‘Compared to What.’ So he has that ability. He’s collaborated with a lot of great artists. If you talk to him about pianists, he’ll start talking about Erroll Garner, he’ll talk about Art Tatum—because he’s a student of all that history. For him, obviously, that ballooned into something because of a couple of recordings, but he’s really a vast individual in terms of different places that he can come from.”

In their performances, Jackson takes the role as the leader and virtual emcee and much of their stage patter is devoted to warm teasing between the saxophonist and McCann. Their mutual affection is very real and expressed in the way that close friends will ride each other about clothes, sports, food, hometown or whatever might get a reaction. Not much is off limits. “Absolutely, that’s his nature. He’s very playful, he loves to crack jokes and he’s very sinister, but not in a bad way. He’s definitely a person who likes to have fun. You need to have thick skin around Les and not to take anything personal.” Jackson again cites his old mentor. “It was the same way with Art Blakely—those kinda guys, they know when to let you know they love you and they know when to push some buttons and play with you. Even though Art’s older than Les, it’s that same kind of generational thing. Les is that kind of person that loves to jab when possible to have some fun.”

And watching Jackson, during the gig in Cape May, get on McCann about his love for Kobe Bryant, it’s apparent that McCann can receive as well as he can give. “Yea, he doesn’t give out anything that he can’t receive in return. I get lots of comments from people who say that they can see the relationship, both in the music and the onstage back and forth, how close we are and what we feel for each other. We’ve never really discussed that, but there’s definitely a strong respect and admiration for each other. I definitely get that from him. Anytime we do a gig, the next day he’ll call me, ‘Hey man, great time,’ or ‘See you on the next one,” or we’ll discuss this or that, like, ‘Hey maybe one time we can try this or maybe one time I’ll count this off.’ I can honestly say that he and I have never had any kind of disagreements of the sort where, ‘I don’t wanna do this anymore’ or something like that. In that respect, we’re the same—we both realize the music is bigger than both of us.”

Jackson says that he’s been too busy playing live to focus on a recording with the band. In addition, he’s wary of doing a clone of Swiss Movement. “I can hear Art Blakey in my mind telling me, ‘Man, it’s never about what’s not happening…it’s about what you’re going to create.’ Things take on different forms and you have to be able to see the different form and be willing to move on with that change. I do want to document us together so I’ve been working on it—trying to come up with something creative and thinking about a way for us to record together. He’s thinking about it and I’ve been thinking about it, because we would really like to just document our time together. He says, ‘Let’s just go and do something that’s never been played before.’ That’s how Les speaks.”

Jackson has a keen appreciation for McCann’s legacy in jazz history and credits him as an originator of a style that has grown in the last four decades. “He’s the godfather of what we know as funky jazz,” explains Jackson. “And there are a ton of players that have come after him—people like Richard Tee or Donald Brown—who cite him as an influence. A lot of those soul jazz pianists, such as Ramsey Lewis and Joe Sample, might be influenced by him. Because Les was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he had an influence on a lot of those soul jazz pianists who came up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, whether they knew it or not. You’ve got alto players and sax players coming up today and they don’t mention Charlie Parker. You might have gotten it from someone else but everyone’s influenced by Charlie Parker. Les is at the beginning of that gospel and jazz and the soul thing and now you got a zillion people who come from that. What used to be the tree might have had seven branches and now it’s got about a hundred of them. But they’re all still hybrids of three or four things.”

For his part, the 45-year-old Jackson is grateful for the opportunity to learn from McCann on the bandstand and off. He explains that he’s never been afraid to learn from his elders. “I’ve been fortunate. I have a successful relationship with Stanley Turrentine, I have a good relationship with George Coleman. I’ve always tried to reach out and learn from these people who have done it before me and done it on a high level. To me it’s almost silly not to make some kind of connection with these various artists, whether it be Billy Harper or Jackie McLean. I’ve reached out to all those people and, believe it or not, they’re more than willing to share their input regarding the business or the saxophone or the lifestyle.”

Jackson says the group will continue to perform around the country in 2011. They’re even headed to a festival in Brazil. For more information about upcoming performances by Javon Jackson with Les McCann, you can visit Jackson’s website. Wherever they end up gigging, Jackson is happy to be part of a cross-generational project like this. “Even though he’s older than me, from a different generation, he’s willing to accept the music at a point that he can grow from it and I absolutely feel that way. His generation has made it possible for our generation.”

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