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REVIEW | "Big Mo & Little Joe: Joe Alterman Plays Les McCann"

Joe Alterman "Big Mo & Little Joe: Joe Alterman Plays Les McCann"

Joe Alterman Music, 2023

By Jeff Cebulski | ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Pianist Joe Alterman, who appears at Winter’s Jazz Club on October 21, is a throwback of sorts, having gained the recognition of many classic players and critics for unabashedly embracing a classic, blues-based approach that intends to infuse performances with personality and swing. His recent release Big Mo & Little Joe: Joe Alterman Plays Les McCann is just one more paean to days past as he pays tribute to the soul jazz artist who was a teenage inspiration to the NYC-raised-now-Atlanta-based artist.

Along with Kevin Smith on bass and Justin Chesarek on drums, two of Atlanta’s most versatile accompanists, Alterman moves his way through deep cuts in McCann’s discography with relative ease, representing every phase of McCann’s career, including McCann’s partnership with saxophonist Eddie Harris but shifting away from the pair’s famous “Compared to What,” a song McCann reportedly grew to hate because audiences consistently cried for it. Instead here we get “Samia” from Second Movement, a smooth vehicle that suggests Alterman has absorbed his share of Ramsey Lewis.

Pop-Jazz, as represented by people like McCann and Lewis, feeds off of popular genre, and Alterman has a good feel for this style, which plays well with audiences. Big Mo and Little Joe starts with a gospel-effused number, “Come On and Get That Church,” from a 1960 McCann album, giving us a sense of how deep Alterman dives into McCann’s catalogue. “Dorene Don’t Cry,” also from the Pacific Jazz 60’s, and a later composition, “It’s You,” demonstrate the ease Alterman has with more breezy material.

“Beaux J. Poo Boo,” an early tune that was resurrected in an extended treatment on McCann’s touted Invitation of Openness, is delivered in Red Garland’s hesitation blues fashion. “The Stragler” is more pronounced and aggressive. The sanctified blues gets another representation on “Ruby Jubilation.”

And so forth. Smith and Chesarek are solid throughout, riding the classic rhythmic waves with Alterman, who has studied the classic late-20th Century pianists closely and has written extensively about them.

Those who attend the concert at Winter’s will be treated to a spritely journey through the land of soul jazz, guided by a true believer and his friends.

Note: The CD sent to the reviewer had an erroneous song listing. The correct one can be found on Alterman’s Bandcamp page.

Joe Alterman, Big Mo & Little Joe: Joe Alterman Plays Les McCann. Joe Alterman Music, 2023.

Joe Alterman, piano

Kevin Smith, bass

Justin Chesarek, drums

About Jeff Cebulski

Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at


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