Like all music, jazz is a mathematical code, whether strictly mapped out in chords or as a launch pad for more avant-garde explorations. Jazz musicians are defined by their work ethic, constantly playing and constantly evolving. While some people in that genre have boldly pursued stardom, most of those who have eked out a career playing music have done it for the love of the art. They are compelled to play, and a gig is a gig, whether it’s a small club, recording session or chance jam session. These people flat out work, and do it as long as their fingers and/or lips can function.
When pianist Les McCann and sax player Eddie Harris brought their respective combos to the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1969, somebody suggested these two leaders play a set together, and they did, with little preparation. Their set was preserved on tape, and became the Swiss Movement album. (There’s another constant in the jazz world: clever titles.) So many summits hope to catch lightning in a bottle, and we should be thankful that this one exists. This is toe-tapping music, not at all esoteric, and very accessible to new ears. Piano, trumpet, sax, upright bass and drums interlock in front a crowd truly into it.
That’s enough to make for an enjoyable listen, but what’s made Swiss Movement such a grower is the first track, and the only one with a vocal. It starts with an insistent piano bass part, and the band kicks in right away, following McCann through some impressionistic chords. He finds a root to follow, moves up a half step at a time while Harris trills along, and eventually lands on F for the vamp that drives the rest of the song. Then he begins to sing.
Written and performed in the shadow of the Vietnam War, civil unrest and revolving presidents, “Compared To What” could be considered a protest song, even in its original R&B take by Roberta Flack. Once Les McCann got hold of it, Roberta had to find another song to make famous.
His voice grabs the words, shakes them around and spits them out, and with the push of a glorious snare hit, ends each verse with the same frustration: “Tryin’ to make it real—compared to what?” Solos fill the spaces between the verses, split and shared by Harris and Benny Bailey on trumpet, underscoring the attitude, particularly one outburst that has gotten DJs kicked off college radio stations for playing it.
Enjoyment of music is a personal thing, but it can also be communal. Most music lovers we know get a huge kick out of turning somebody else on to something new to the ears, which is almost as exciting as discovering a common bond in a beloved recording. That’s probably the best way to learn about jazz—listen to what other people love, and that will help you find your own note. This mind vividly remembers hearing “Compared To What” for the first time, and finding others just as thrilled by it is always exhilarating. Just as music should be.
Les McCann & Eddie Harris Swiss Movement (1969)—4