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By Bob Weinberg
Separated by age and geography, Joe Alterman and Les McCann share an unbreakable bond.
Joe Alterman was excited. A little nervous, but excited. In a few hours, he’d be opening for Les McCann, one of his piano heroes, at the Blue Note in Manhattan. On stage during a soundcheck, Alterman spied McCann as he entered the club and approached the bandstand. Instead of a typical greeting, the veteran pianist told the young up-and-comer, “Play me some blues, boy!” Alterman did just that, eliciting an appreciative “Amen!” from McCann.
Nearly a dozen years have passed since their initial encounter, and Alterman says barely a day has passed that the two haven’t spoken. Alterman, who resides in his native Atlanta, and McCann, who lives in a rehab facility in Van Nuys, California, check in with one another on their smart phones. A combination of health woes — cancer, diabetes and bad hips among them — has conspired to keep McCann bedridden in recent years, although Alterman says he’s taken McCann on stage with him virtually during concerts. “It’s always fun to look over and see Les just smilin’ on my phone,” says the 35-year-old pianist in an engaging Georgia drawl, conversing just a few days before McCann’s 88th birthday on September 23.
In fact, that’s just how McCann attended a record release party for Alterman’s recent recording, Big Mo & Little Joe: Joe Alterman Plays Les McCann, a masterful, affectionate revival of McCann compositions played by Alterman and his trio with bassist Kevin Smith and drummer Justin Chesarek. A longtime McCann fan, Alterman culled songs spanning the elder jazzman’s decades-long discography, from “Come and Get That Church” (from 1960’s Les McCann in San Francisco) to “Ruby Jubilation” (from 1977’s Music Lets Me Be and 1996’s Listen Up). The cross-generational pals co-composed the track “Don’t Forget To Love Yourself,” the title taken from a bit of advice frequently tendered by McCann. Alterman had played it on his 2021 recording, The Upside of Down, “but I thought it was part of our story that I should include,” on the new self-released album, he says. “I get emotional when I play it.” Following their usual method, McCann sang the melody over the phone to Alterman, who wrote it out and added chords.
Noticeably absent from the program is the driving social diatribe “Compared to What,” a hit that featured McCann’s impassioned soul vocal, from Swiss Movement, his live 1969 album with saxophonist Eddie Harris. Alterman instead acknowledges the McCann-Harris partnership with the lovely “Samia,” from their 1971 follow-up, Second Movement.
The omission was intentional. “I feel like Les is underrated as both a pianist and a composer,” Alterman says, “and I wanted to be sure to do songs that Les composed. Les didn’t get any composition credit for ‘Compared to What.’ Gene McDaniels wrote the song, but Les really made the arrangement that everyone does. Les will often tell me how McDaniels would play it for him, and it was really supposed to imitate Dylan; it was kinda like a folk song. So the way it came together, I think, is really thanks to Les. Les deserves a liner credit. But he didn’t get any. And I really wanted to draw attention to other music of his.”
Recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Swiss Movement marked a popular apex for McCann. The Kentucky native had recorded prolifically for the Pacific Jazz label in the early ’60s, his recordings revealing roots in church music and R&B and marked by their deep commitment to groove. Cannonball Adderley had invited him to join his group, but McCann declined, preferring to remain a leader.
The rootsy “Beaux J. Poo Boo,” which Alterman revisits on Big Mo & Little Joe, initially appeared on McCann’s 1970 album New From the Big City, and he reprised it on the adventurous 1972 release Invitation to Openness, a trippy outlier in the pianist’s discography. Apparently, McCann had been inspired to delve a bit further afield after recording with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention on their 1966 classic Freak Out!
Whatever McCann played is suffused with warmth and humanity — not to mention infectious grooves that drew hip-hop artists like The Notorious B.I.G. to sample him — and his music seems designed to elevate listeners’ moods. The same could be said of Alterman. “That’s the goal,” he concurs. “That’s what brings Les and I together, the joyful thing, I think.”
Alterman reports that McCann maintains good spirits, for the most part, making prodigious use of meditation practices. When his ailments get the better of him, he reaches out to his protégé. “He’ll call me and he’ll say, ‘Man, please, play me a ballad,’” Alterman says. “And I’ll go to the piano and play him a ballad and when I finish, I can hear in his voice how much better he sounds. He says that music has ‘nutritional value’ to him. I really feel that with him.”
Featured photo by Anna Yatskevich.