“I Became the Whole Orchestra”: The Creation of Les McCann's 'Layers'

Magical recording sessions in the dark, the feeling of synthesizers being alive, and other elements that helped create a classic.

Shout out to Buscrates for inspiring me to write this article.

Les McCann heard the music from Layers playing inside his head before he recorded the album nearly 48 years. Though he wasn’t quite able to articulate what he wanted his groundbreaking project to sound like yet, he phoned frequent collaborator and accomplished producer Joel Dorn to express the urgent need to record. “I couldn't really tell him what it was all about because I didn't you know myself,” McCann wrote in the Layers liner notes. “I just had to get it out and for the most part I felt I'd have to do it alone.”

Even though he still had to figure out how to transfer the music from his mind to tape, McCann was confident the late Dorn’s assistance would help him execute a successful final product. Dorn also called on trusted engineer Robert Liftin—who McCann called “my indispensable man”—to set the wheels of the recording process in motion.

According to Liftin, McCann was a consummate professional and extremely efficient throughout the creation of Layers. Playing all of the instruments himself with the exception of some percussion parts, he nailed most of the necessary recordings in a single shot.

In addition to his businesslike approach and flawless playing, Liftin noted the gifted jazz pianist’s keen ability to tease out hidden emotions from the human experience while simultaneously projecting them in his music. “Les McCann can see pain behind a smile, can sense love in despair and create music to fulfill the heart and soul,” he wrote.

When recording for Layers first began, McCann marvelled at how effortlessly the music flowed out of him—an experience that seems to have inspired the album title. “With the tapes rolling, I asked the guys to give me some rhythm and I began playing on the piano what I had been hearing in my head,” he wrote. “They came out in pattern after pattern—unrolling in endless layers, one after another.”

Once the rhythm tracks were set, the studio emptied out so McCann could record as the sole musician. Rob Liftin turned out the lights, rewound the tapes, and let them play. Working in darkness, McCann used his ARP synthesizers to further flesh out the tracks and create the necessary textures for each song. “I became the whole orchestra,” he wrote. “I jumped from the trumpet section to the trombones, to the various flutes, obocs and the bassoons, and I even had my chance at the drums and the bass.”

Feeling as though the synthesizers were actually living and breathing entities as Layers came together, McCann returned to the studio each night for a profound musical experience. “It was like magic-magic from my childhood-magis for now-and magic for all time,” he wrote.

To capture the magic, Dorn and Liftin tried out some truly innovative recording techniques. Instead of limiting themselves to 16 tracks of recording capability, they tied together two 16-track machines to give themselves a full 32 tracks and a greater ability to capture McCann’s full range. This made Layers the first album to use 32-track recording.

Given the seamless workflow and trust of Dorn, Liftin, and McCann, they also skirted traditional studio decorum and let each session flow freely. “We never use take numbers or callouts, instead one song just runs into the next in a continuous flow of music,” Liftin wrote.

The end result was a completely novel entry in Les McCann’s massive catalog that demonstrated just how beautiful synthesizers could sound in jazz music. Nearly five decades later, it holds up incredibly well and sounds as clear and fresh as ever.

With a broad spectrum of rhythms and moods executed flawlessly by McCann, it’s no wonder Layers is a favorite of music aficionados and instrumental hip-hop producers. An engrossing listening experience from beginning to end with a strong reply value, there’s never been a better time than now to revisit this timeless work of art.

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