WHAT ARE THE OPTIMAL CONDITIONS FOR RECORDING A HIT JAZZ–POP
crossover album? A well-rehearsed band, good recording conditions, and new material? The
1969 live album Swiss Movement fulfilled none of those requirements, yet it became a million-selling
crossover record. Anchored by Leroy Vinnegar’s punchy, funky upright groove, pianist/
vocalist Les McCann and saxophonist Eddie Harris delivered an incredibly powerful set that
captured the politically charged spirit and musical developments that characterized the era.
Swiss Movement was a seminal recording in the world of jam-band-style funky jazz.
Vinnegar was known as a consummate walking bassist, yet during his tenure with the Les
McCann group in the ’60s, many of the grooves were straight-eighth R&B. On Swiss Movement,
Vinnegar and drummer Donald Dean often play somewhere between straight and swing
eighths, with Dean tending toward straight eighths, and Vinnegar belying his bop roots with
the occasional implied triplet feeling. Regardless of the mathematical relationship between
the bass and drums, the result was magical. In the liner notes to the album, Mike Hennesey
wrote, “From the very first note this quixotic quintet played, an unrelenting groove was established—
and it never let up.”
The quintet included the Les McCann Trio, plus soloists Harris and trumpeter Benny Bailey.
McCann’s trio and Harris’ group had both performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and Bailey
was a U.S. expat living in Switzerland at the time. Producer Joel Dorn, in a moment of brilliance,
paired the McCann Trio with Harris and Bailey for a jam-session concert on the festival’s
last day. They had never played together before; there was no rehearsal, and there were
no charts. Luckily for us, the mics were on, video cameras were rolling, and the performance
was released that year on the album Swiss Movement.
“Compared to What” was the breakout hit single and ranks among the great jazz protest
songs, in the political tradition of Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden. With McCann singing
lyrics like “The president, he’s got his war; folks don’t know just what it’s for,” the song offered
a danceable critique of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam war.
For the intro, McCann sets up an Eb minor vamp and is quickly joined by Vinnegar (Ex. 1).
McCann plays modally while sliding through several key centers, eventually landing on an F7.
In Ex. 2 the band finds its mojo and is jamming on the F7. Vinnegar uses a bass line similar
to the intro, but in a two-bar phrase. The intro bass line (Ex. 1) is a one-bar repeated groove,
whereas the F7 bass line (Ex. 2) is a two-bar repeated line that drops down to the open A, and
then pushes back up the scale using offbeats.
Example 3 adds the chromatic approach note
B to the line. This slight variation gives even more
drive to Vinnegar’s groove. It’s amazing to hear
eight minutes of ecstatic groovelation, underpinned
by only a few simple variations. It’s what
Vinnegar is known for: rhythmic precision, simplicity,
and the ability to make any band feel great.
Leroy Vinnegar was born in Indianapolis in
1928. His first major gig was in the house band
at the Bee Hive in Chicago. He relocated to L.A. in
1954 and quickly became a first-call player because
of his simple, swinging walking style. He performed
with everyone from Shelly Manne [My Fair Lady,
Contemporary, 1956] to the Doors [Waiting for the
Sun, Asylum/Elektra, 1968]. In addition to countless
dates with top players of the West Coast jazz
scene, Vinnegar recorded a couple of solo albums
as a bandleader, including Leroy Walks! [Contemporary,
1957] and Leroy Walks Again!! [Contemporary,
1962]. Vinnegar moved to Portland in 1986,
and was a mainstay on the local scene there until
his death in 1999.
On all of his recordings, Vinnegar distinguishes
himself for his unselfish, supportive rhythm-section
style, but his playing on the Swiss Movement
album is a bass gem in the bin of classic live
albums. Vinnegar’s opportune appearance at the
1969 Montreux Jazz Festival with the thrown-together
McCann–Harris quintet remains a high
point in the history of recorded jazz. This type of
driving, funky, danceable jazz set the stage for
contemporary bands like the Bad Plus, Rudder,
and Medeski Martin & Wood. (Historical note:
The Montreux Casino, where Swiss Movement was
recorded, has been a major venue at the Jazz Festival
for decades. The casino is immortalized in the
Deep Purple song “Smoke on the Water,” which
recounts a 1971 Frank Zappa concert where an
over-enthusiastic fan set the building afire with
a flare gun: “Smoke on the water, fire in the sky.”)
In the album liner notes, producer Joel Dorn
recalled listening to the festival tapes when he
got back in his studio. “The door to the room
was open, and within ten minutes the room
was filled with people who got sucked in by the
music—secretaries, mail-room guys, all kinds
of people. Everybody was dancing. It was nuts.
It’s the live album you dream about making, but
it happens very rarely. But it happened that
night. It was the luckiest record of my career.”
Hennesey added, “It had all the makings of a
musical disaster of epic proportions—yet it
turned out to be one of the most stimulating
and serendipitous live jazz performances ever
captured on record.”
Leroy Vinnegar will be remembered as a
swinging walking bassist with an extra feather
in his cap for his Swiss Movement performance.
Now, check out the YouTube video of “Compared
to What.” I guarantee you’ll be dancing soon.
Check out John
playing with Eddie
Harris [The Last
Concert, ACT, 1997],
and visit him on
the web at www.johngoldsby.com
for sound samples,
videos, and answers
to all of your bassrelated
Les McCann and