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The Popular Song: COMPARED TO WHAT

In the mid-70s, among the many jobs I undertook while I was working my way through college and grad school, I tended bar at Gilly's, a jazz club in Dayton, Ohio, a few nights a week. My future wife, Anne, was a waitress, and she convinced the owner to take me on. It paid very little--minimum wage--which was about two bucks an hour. No tips. But it was outside of class time, which I needed, and I loved the music. I was fortunate to hear many of the all-time great jazz players, and I would give anything if I could go back and do it again with the knowledge and perspective and appreciation I have today. After the last set, while I spent time scouring glasses, refilling the liquor bottles, and polishing the bar top, I would plunk change into the jukebox and play a favorite tune by, let's say, Chet Baker. But one of my favorite songs at that time was an angry protest composition performed by pianist Les McCann and tenor saxophone player Eddie Harris called "Compared to What", written by Gene McDaniels and first performed in 1969 by Roberta Flack. A few months after her rendition, McCann and Harris performed the song live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and it became the highlight of their album Swiss Movement, a big hit that earned them a certified Gold record.

Written during the height of the Nixon administration, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights movement, "Compared to What" boasts lyrics that are angry, pointed, and accusatory. The lines are sometimes a little hazy in meaning, but the message that ordinary people should be fed up and need to push back at the "powers that be" is a caustic and powerful one. Here are McDaniel's lyrics:

I love to lie and lie to love

I'm hangin' on they push and shove

Possession is the motivation

That is hangin' up the goddamn nation

Looks like we always end up in a rut

Everybody now

Tryin' to make it real compared to what

Slaughterhouse is killin' hogs

Twisted children killin' frogs

Poor dumb rednecks rollin' logs

Tired old ladies kissin' dogs

I hate the human love of that stinking mutt

I can't use it

Tryin' to make it real compared to what

President he's got his war

Folks don't know just what it's for

Nobody gives us rhyme or reason

Have one doubt they call it treason

We're chicken feathers

All without one nut goddamn it

Tryin' to make it real compared to what

Church on Sunday sleep and nod

Tryin' to duck the wrath of God

Preachers fillin' us with fright

They all tryin' to teach us what they think is right

They really got to be some kind of nut

I can't use it

Tryin' to make it real compared to what

Where's that bee and where's that honey

Where's my God and where's my money

Unreal values a crass distortion

Unwed mothers need abortion

Kind of brings to mind old young King Tut

He did it now

Tried to make it real compared to what

Tryin' to make it real compared to what

McCann and Harris both had wonderful combos in their own right, and I was fortunate enough to enjoy their trios or quartets over multiple gigs at Gilly's. But I would loved to have seen them together, as they performed this classic. Here is their performance at Montreux.

The song opens with Les McCann on piano and Donald Dean on drums and includes a little sample from "The Age of Aquarius" from the recent hit musical Hair. I love that McCann is privately scatting to himself as the rhythm of the tune is fixed. Leroy Vinegar enters on bass and the melody is established for the remainder of the song. Eddie Harris finally joins in, with his impassioned sax lightly accenting McCann's vocals before breaking into fevered solo riffs after each verse concludes. Midway through the song, McCann calls for Benny Bailey's trumpet to enter, and he lets fly with a scorching solo, brassy and bold. Then it's back to Eddie Harris again as he and McCann drive the theme home. McCann takes time for his own solo before the entire group propels itself to a crescendo and coda. Wow! What a song!

Everyone must have known that they had a hit on their hands, with strong crossover appeal (in a time when jazz songs might show up on the pop and rock and R&B charts). One of the extraordinary aspects of the recording is that there wasn't a chance for Eddie Harris or Benny Bailey to rehearse with Les McCann's trio! Benny Bailey never even received the sheet music--he just felt it organically and it all worked! That's part of the wondrous nature of jazz--the possibilities that come with improvisation around a musical theme.

The song has been covered nearly 300 times since "Compared to What" was first performed. Ray Charles, Terence Blanchard, Philip Bailey, and John Legend, among others, have personalized this tune. One interesting take is the funk-infused interpretation by Meshell Ndegeocello:

And a completely different slant on the song comes from Al Jarreau. As always with Al, it's all about the possibilities of the human voice as a musical instrument.

Organ master, Brian Auger, created a memorable version of the song, with rock roots. He shows off his fingerwork in this live version.

As a little bonus, I should point out that another standard came from that same McCann/Harris session in Montreux. "Cold Duck Time" never reached the universality of "Compared to What", but it's a hit song in its own right. Benny Bailey's solo is electrifying. And it's funny to see the performance nearly interrupted by a couple of late arrivers who are placed near the stage until you realize that one of them is the "First Lady of Song"-- Ella Fitzgerald, no doubt an inspiration to the band. I don't think anyone drinks Cold Duck any longer, but you can still savor this great jazz tune, and don't forget to add Swiss Movement to your collection.


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