Atlanta-Based Pianist Joe Alterman Pays Tribute to His Mentor and Dear Friend, the Legendary Pianist/Composer Les McCann, on His Spirited New Trio Album
Joe Alterman Plays Les McCann: Big Mo & Little Joe, Available August 11 via Joe Alterman Music, Features Bassist Kevin Smith and Drummer Justin Chesarek on Material Spanning McCann’s Career
The first time that the two pianists met, Les McCann didn’t bother to formally greet Joe Alterman. The then wheelchair-bound McCann simply approached the stage of New York’s legendary Blue Note, where the younger pianist was in the middle of his soundcheck, and said, “Play me some blues, boy.”
The results were greeted with a simple, “Amen,” and with that began an unlikely friendship that has now spanned more than a decade. The pair are separated in age by more than half a century; McCann is confined to a medical rehab facility in Los Angeles, while Alterman left New York City to return to his native Atlanta, Georgia six years ago. But since their paths first crossed back in 2012, according to Alterman, “barely a day has passed that we haven’t chatted.”
That tightknit relationship provides the deeply emotional core of Joe Alterman Plays Les McCann: Big Mo & Little Joe. Due out August 11, 2023, the album is a loving tribute from Alterman to his mentor and friend. The eleven-song set culls material from the full span of McCann’s storied career, from the robust acoustic swing of his Les McCann Ltd. trio to the gritty funk of his partnership with tenor great Eddie Harris, to his pioneering yet undersung electric years, which presaged the jam band movement and garnered admirers from Frank Zappa to A Tribe Called Quest.
“I love every era of Les’ career,” Alterman says. “I have a soft spot for the early Les McCann Ltd. albums, when he was playing piano and swinging his ass off. But I chose my favorite songs from every era. I don’t think a lot of people know how great a composer or pianist Les was.”
The strength of McCann’s compositions is evidenced by the fact that Alterman was able to adapt pieces from across the spectrum of the elder pianist’s career to the acoustic trio format. On Big Mo & Little Joe, Alterman leads his Atlanta-based trio with bassist Kevin Smith and drummer Justin Chesarek, both of whom have also grown close with McCann over the years. Rarely do the three perform anywhere in the country when McCann is not virtually present via Alterman’s smartphone.
Notably absent from the setlist for Big Mo & Little Joe is “Compared To What,” the Gene McDaniels protest song that was a massive hit for McCann and Eddie Harris in 1969. Alterman was determined to highlight the equally powerful and catchy songs that flowed from McCann’s pen but have gone relatively unrecognized. McCann’s partnership with the tenor great is instead represented by the wistful “Samia,” which the trio builds from a gentle whisper to a joyful celebration.
The album kicks off with the rollicking, gospel-rooted “Gone On and Get That Church,” originally released on 1960’s Les McCann Ltd. in San Francisco. The same album yielded the swaggering blues “Big Jim,” an ode to McCann’s father. “I love the way that Les develops each chorus of a blues,” Alterman marvels. “It’s hypnotic to me – like Oscar Peterson but dirtier.”
The tender, sultry ballad “Dorene Don’t Cry” and the soulful “Beaux J. Pooboo” (McCann’s less-than-complimentary caricature of Sheriff Pooboo graces the album’s liner notes) also both stem from the Les McCann Ltd. years. “Could Be” and “The Stragler,” meanwhile, were both recorded with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra in 1964, shortly before the pianist began his explorations of the Fender Rhodes.
The steely “Someday We’ll Meet Again” leaps ahead to 1974’s Another Beginning, while the stomping, sanctified “Ruby Jubilation” dates from 1977’s Music Lets Me Be. In both cases Alterman’s treatment strips away the very of-their-period production of McCann’s originals to reveal brilliant tunes as rooted in the blues, gospel and soul as anything that the Ltd. trio ever recorded. The same applies to the lovely “It’s You,” which McCann recorded on his little-known 2003 release Vibrations, with his own offbeat vocal.
The album concludes with “Don’t Forget To Love Yourself,” a song that the two pianists composed together and was originally recorded for Alterman’s 2020 release The Upside of Down. Originally intended to fulfill McCann’s longheld dream to compose a replacement for the state song of his native Kentucky, he sang the melody to Alterman over the phone. When he heard the younger composer’s harmonic and melodic embellishments, McCann decided that “My Old Kentucky Home” would have to stay in place a little longer, and that the pair instead had a gorgeous ballad on their hands.
Of the title, Alterman explains, “Before he went into the hospital, Les’ voicemail used to say, ‘Give me time to get to the phone, but don’t forget to love yourself.’ That really sums up our relationship. Les believes that everything in life can be boiled down to either love or fear, and he’s always encouraging me to love myself. It’s a very emotional and spiritual song for me.”
Despite McCann’s physical frailty, his mind – and his ears – remain sharp. He’ll no doubt appreciate his young friend’s heartfelt tribute. As he writes in his liner notes, “[Joe’s] music is from the soul. It’s real and it makes you feel joyous and happy… Knowing him is one of the great moments in my life and I’m so thankful. He makes me smile every day.”
While Alterman’s friendship with McCann spanned more than a decade, Alterman was also close with pianist Ahmad Jamal, who died on April 16. Alterman wrote some special memories of Jamal on his website as well as a poignant tribute to his friend and pianist Ramsey Lewis, who died in 2022.
2023 Tour Dates
June 2 – Poli Club – Waterbury, CT – Litchfield JazzFest Presents: Joe Alterman Quartet Feat. Ken Peplowski
June 3 – Scullers Jazz Club – Boston, MA – Jonathan Karrant & The Joe Alterman Trio Feat. Houston Person
June 15 – The Smith Center – Las Vegas, NV – w/Jonathan Karrant
July 15 – Middle C Jazz Club – Charlotte, NC – 7:00PM & 9:15PM – Karla Harris & The Joe Alterman Trio
August 10 – Eddie’s Attic – Atlanta, GA – 7PM – Joe Alterman Trio | Album Release Show!
October 12 – Eddie’s Attic – Atlanta, GA – 7PM – Joe Alterman Trio
October 21 – Winters Jazz Club – Chicago, IL – 7:30 & 9:30PM – Joe Alterman Trio
December 1 – Spivey Hall – Atlanta, GA – Joe Alterman Trio