Apropos to the musical subject-matter‚ I first heard Les McCann and Eddie Harris' Swiss Movement in a smokey basement‚ over a pool table and a cheap jug of wine‚ burned to a flimsy‚ marker-scrawled disc. While‚ for most of its circulation‚ the album had been passed across smokey tables in the form of a 12" LP‚ the story of how one comes to acquire this one-time best-selling jazz album often becomes as critical to the listener as the story of the unlikely evening's performance‚ immortalized on whatever type of listening media one comes to find it. Despite the amount of You Tube traffic the footage now receives‚ the album never fails to sound like a secret. For those of us to whom 1969 seems like a distant‚ almost mythical‚ point in our artistic history‚ this one intimate recording stands as a summation of what us technology-enlivened youth missed in the two preceding decades of analog-ia‚ and captures the fierce core of what we've come to expect in music ever since.
Born of a jam session at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland‚ Harris (tenor sax) and McCann (piano) decided to share a bill after headlining‚ respectively‚ the previous nights. The impromptu performance‚ featuring trumpeter Benny Bailey‚ seemed bound for disaster. Without a proper rehearsal or sheet music‚ Harris told McCann to simply play the material his trio was familiar with‚ while he'd watch the pianist's hands for the chords‚ then signal them to Bailey‚ who had even admitted that the stuff "wasn't really (his) kind of music." The house was packed and Ella Fitzgerald's entrance to the concert hall can be audibly noted on the record. To top it off‚ McCann had smoked hashish before the set for the first time in his life.
The audience is still buzzing when the band first hits‚ and it takes a moment for the song‚ "Compared to What‚" to build steam in its opening bars‚ but then Harris steps forward‚ plunging into an arpeggiated‚ "A Love Supreme"-style annunciation. A few cheers rise from the seated crowd‚ and an air of expectant energy rises in the auditorium. McCann begins singing the first sardonic verse‚ and suddenly it feels like Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall. Whatever jitters may have preceded the performance are gone by the end of the opener‚ and with "Cold Duck Time‚" the formula has been established: Harris and Bailey lay out of the intro‚ tease it away from the mic‚ and step forward‚ once chordal footing has been established to solo. Fortunately‚ modal tunes like bassist Leroy Vinnegar's "The Generation Gap" lend themselves nicely to this blind‚ spontaneous improvisation.
It's funky‚ but far from the brand of soul/jazz that came to dominate the times. While drummer Donald Dean drops an occasional Clyde Stubblefield or Bernard Purdy flourish‚ it's a ride-driven groove that dominates. And far from the blues-based soloing that pervades the bulk of the genre‚ Harris and Bailey sail high above the backbeat‚ probing harmonic limitations that their ignorance of the arrangement prevents them from observing. McCann‚ all the while‚ carries a steady‚ faintly audible moan (a la Keith Jarrett)‚ while accentuating his rigid left hand with an adventurous right. Far from uniform‚ the album moves from up-tempo romps ("You Got It In Your Soulness" and the sampled-to-shit "Cold Duck Time") to tender ballads ("Kathleen's Theme"). Before the closing track‚ "Kaftan‚" a pause is filled with McCann's introduction for a brand new song. "We don't have a title for it yet‚ so‚ if you want to get with the groove‚ go on‚ stretch out‚ let your feet stomp or whatever you want. Feel it‚ if we feel it."
It doesn't take much convincing. 40 years later‚ across an ocean‚ after Eddie Harris' passing‚ and through a formerly uninvented household appliance‚ the feeling is palpable. The teetering is invigorating. Like watching an oft-repeated circus-act and sighing every time the performer fails to die‚ Swiss Movement is the apotheosis of a live performance. It reeks‚ every time‚ of the same sweat and booze it did the first time‚ regardless of where it might be playing. In a set of his own liner notes‚ contemporary piano great Brad Mehldau once wondered‚ "If all the written music in the world suddenly burned up in a flash‚ who could do a gig the same night‚ regardless?" While it was hardly the end of the world‚ McCann and Harris played that night as if it might have been.