BY DON HECKMAN
Call it an odd couple. Or maybe an odd quintet would be more accurate — an odd quintet consisting of fine musicians who, at first glance, would seem to make an unusual combination. Yet there they were Friday night, Upstairs at Vitello’s, playing for a crowd that seemed to be enjoying every minute with pianist/singer Les McCann and his frequent musical companion, vocalist Lee Hartley, along with the Eric Reed Trio (with drummer Wesley Anderson and bassist Mike Gurrola). Despite some stylistic differences, they had all come together for an evening overflowing with jazz, funk, blues and a strong taste of soul and gospel. Enjoying every minute of it.
In the center, the Buddah-like presence Les McCann. Presumably not in the best health (he had a stroke more than a decade ago) , he required considerable assistance climbing onto the stage and into a seat behind an electric piano. But what really mattered was what happened when he actually began playing the instrument in combination with the others.
The legendary McCann, whose musically fertile career reaches back to the ‘60s, when he recorded the huge pop/jazz crossover hit, “Compared To What,” isn’t seen often enough on club or concert stages, despite the fact that he still is (at 77) a strikingly dynamic performer with a feisty personality.
An example of the latter: After slowly finding his way to center stage and his electric piano seat, where he was greeted by continuing applause, McCann wasn’t pleased by a remark shouted from the audience. His eyes staring intensely at the culprit, he replied with the concise and pointed response: “Hey man. Shut the fuck up!” Which drew even more audience applause (and laughter).
But it was McCann’s special blend of keyboard playing and singing that brought the performance completely to life, serving as either the driver or the engine for some of the evening’s most entertaining moments.
The set actually began with the Reed trio, swinging casually through Benny Golson’s “Stablemates,” with a rich rhythmic camaraderie between pianist Reed and the youthful but musically mature Anderson and Gurrola.
Singer Lee Hartley followed, with an equally upbeat “Honeysuckle Rose,” finding some still energetic life in the old standard. Her later versions of “My Foolish Heart” and “Cheek To Cheek” (among others) were the work of a mature talent. Performing comfortably in a style that enhanced a mainstream jazz perspective with illuminating aspects of gospel music and the blues.
The evening hit its peak when McCann joined Hartley and the Reed trio in explorations of the blues sparked by an occasional Horace Silver tune, and reaching a climax with McCann’s mesmerizing rendering of “Amazing Grace.” But the compelling quality of the music had less to do with specific numbers than it did with the creative intimacy that was sparked by the encounter between these fine artists.
By the time the set was over, neither the performers nor the audience seemed ready to have it all end. But it had to, nonetheless, leaving behind the memory of a rare and entertaining evening of prime jazz and blues, performed with spontaneity, imagination and swing.
Photos by Faith Frenz.