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JAZZ REVIEW : Les McCann Bellies Up to the Piano, Bats Out Change-Ups

February 09, 1988|DON HECKMAN

Rhythm has been pianist Les McCann's game for more than three decades--the grooving, infectious kind of rhythm that makes the feet tap and the body move.

If his opening set at Rum Runners restaurant in Seal Beach on Sunday night suggested that McCann has lost a bit of velocity in his high, hard fast-ball pieces, he more than made up for it with the funk-driven swing of his change-up patterns and an unerring eye for the rhythmic corner of the plate.

Situated before the piano like a large round Buddha, his impressive girth belying the darting quickness of his fingers, McCann wasted no time in establishing control of a noisy room, an out-of-tune piano and a recalcitrant sound system. Punching out brisk, sudden accents, moving easily from sound to silence and back again, opening unexpected windows for bass and drum to peer through, he quickly made clear his intention to be musical master of all he surveyed.

Once his rhythmic dominance was achieved via a few crisp instrumentals, McCann moved to the vocal material that has dominated his recent work. Starting with a surprisingly sweet love ballad, he then made a sharp left turn into the twisting swing and double-entendre message of a blues titled "Ride, Ride, Ride."

Another ballad, "With These Hands," has long been a staple of McCann's repertoire. Yet he sang it with the warmth and affection of a freshly discovered piece.

McCann closed, predictably, with "Compared to What," the funk-drenched message song from the '60s that has virtually become his trademark. The message is as valid as it ever was, and McCann's playing was a classic example of a man doing exactly what he wanted to do, and doing it very well indeed.

The rhythm team of Ralph Penland on drums and Curtis Robertson Jr. on bass backed McCann with fiery intensity. Penland, who seems to be playing everywhere recently, interacted particularly well with Robertson's hard-edged style.

McCann's booking at the Rum Runners was the first in a new series of regular jazz events at this warm and friendly room. Plans call for name acts such as Poncho Sanchez and Phil Upchurch to appear on Friday and Sunday early evening programs (4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Fridays and 5 to 7 p.m. Sundays), with the Stan Gilbert Trio performing a "Happy Hour" jazz set Mondays through Saturdays. Cover charges vary from act to act.

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