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Les McCann

After leaving Gene McDaniels' employ in 1959, pianist Les McCann continually evolved his style from hard bop by incorporating his signature groove-based rhythms into soul-jazz, gospel, R&B, and funk. McCann's abilities also included his expressive, earthy, gravelly singing voice. He cut a slew of albums for Pacific Jazz beginning with 1960's The Truth. He signed to Atlantic in 1968 and a year later, recorded the live Swiss Movement with saxophonist Eddie Harris, netting iconic performances of "Compared to What?" and "Cold Duck Time." His Atlantic tenure (which lasted until 1976) netted a slew of popular titles and two consecutive now-influential electric jazz-funk albums: 1973's Invitation to Openness and 1974's Layers. He later recorded successful albums for ABC Impulse and A&M, including 1978's The Man, and then recorded on indies. He suffered a stroke in 1995 that left him partially paralyzed but began recording again, issuing the star-studded Pump It Up in 2002 and A Time Les Christmas in 2018. In 2023, Resonance Records released the archival, multi-disc Never a Dull Moment! Live from Coast to Coast 1966-1967. McCann was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1935. His siblings (a brother and three sisters) all sang in church. His father was a jazz fan and his mother liked to hum opera arias. He began taking piano lessons at six, but after only a few weeks, his teacher unexpectedly died. McCann continued teaching himself the piano while getting formal musical training in elementary and high school. He played tuba in the marching band and drums in the orchestra. McCann joined the navy and, during his service, won a singing contest that resulted in an appearance on the nationally syndicated Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. After being honorably discharged, he moved to Los Angeles and formed a trio. McCann turned down an invitation to join the Cannonball Adderley Quintet in order to focus on his own music. The group's first gig was playing the Purple Onion in 1959 supporting Gene McDaniels, who hired them to back him on tour after that night. After leaving McDaniels' employ, McCann signed a solo deal with Pacific Jazz. In 1960, Les McCann Ltd. Plays the Truth and The Shout appeared. His soulful, funk style on piano was influential on emerging musicians, resonated with veterans, and was popular with live audiences. He recorded a dozen albums for Pacific Jazz between 1960 and 1967, including Les McCann Ltd. in New York with Blue Note stars Stanley Turrentine and Blue Mitchell, and Les McCann Sings with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. Despite the latter's release in 1961, McCann's singing was only occasional both live and on recordings; he didn't begin using vocals as a key part of his act until the middle of the decade. During his time with Pacific Jazz, McCann issued collaborative albums with the Jazz Crusaders, Richard "Groove" Holmes, and several others. 1963's Plays the Shampoo at the Village Gate, netted a number three single with the title track. Though pianist Ramsey Lewis was already recording, McCann's 1963 album influenced the latter's mid-'60s live recordings such as The In Crowd and Dancing in the Street. McCann moved over to Limelight in 1965/1967 on the way to Atlantic in 1968. Swiss Movement, his label debut, was recorded in collaboration with saxophonist Eddie Harris at the Montreux Jazz Festival. They hadn't rehearsed before the gig and Harris hadn't even seen their music. The record was a smash, thanks in part to McCann's vocals on their reading of McDaniels' "Compared to What?" (McCann's signature tune), and Harris contributed the massively funky "Cold Duck Time." The album won airplay internationally and charted. (Another volume, Second Movement, appeared in 1971 to critical acclaim, but didn't sell as well.) Some jazz critics felt McCann emphasized his singing at the expense of his and his sidemen's playing, but the listening public didn't agree, and they were right not to: Recordings from the period, like 1971's Comment and 1972's Talk to the People, are both excellent. Joel Dorn, McCann's producer at the label, encouraged his singing and his use of an electric piano and analog synthesizers. For 1973's Invitation to Openness, McCann and Dorn hired a 13-piece band that included Yusef Lateef, guitarists Cornell Dupree and David Spinozza, and five percussionists/drummers that included Alphonse Mouzon, William "Buck" Clarke, Ralph McDonald, and Bernard Purdie. McCann's sidemen, bassist Jimmy Rowser and drummer percussionist Donald Dean, were also aboard. McCann played electric piano and synth; he also conducted without charts or formal instructions across three largely improvised, vamp-and-groove-laden jazz-funk jams that included an improvised, side-long track titled "The Lovers." It notched perfectly with the early electric releases of Miles Davis (In a Silent Way, Jack Johnson, Bitches Brew) and Weather Report (I Sing the Body Electric). He followed with the even more revolutionary Layers in 1973. Retaining his trio, and McDonald and Clarke from the former outing, Layers revealed McCann's love of the ARP synthesizer (he also played piano and electric piano) and led him to attempt his own re-creation of an orchestra with it using the sounds of strings, reeds, winds, etc. The band, meanwhile, stuck close to a prescription of airy, gritty, jazz-funk. Both Invitation to Openness and Layers have found several more generations of listeners, particularly among electronic music and hip-hop fans. He followed it with Live at Montreux at the end of 1973 with Clarke filling out his quartet, and completed his Atlantic label deal with three lushly arranged, elegantly orchestrated, criminally underrated gems of progressive soul: 1974's Another Beginning, 1975's Hustle to Survive, and 1976's River High, River Low. After his tenure on Atlantic, McCann continued to tour the globe, but recorded far less often. Music Lets Me Be and Change, Change, Change: Live at the Roxy both appeared from ABC Impulse in 1977, but by then McCann had inked a deal with A&M. Les McCann The Man appeared in 1978. Motown producer/arranger Paul Riser tried to adorn McCann's funky rhythms with smooth horns and soft strings, hoping its gorgeously recorded results would translate into commercial dance music. It didn't. The very next year, producers Benny Golson and Bobby Martin brought McCann into an L.A. studio with the intention of making him a latter-day disco star and hired an army of slick session players to ensure it. That it didn't work, given McCann's fierce independent streak, is no surprise. McCann continued to tour but didn't record again until releasing The Longer You Wait and Music Box for Jam Records during the mid-'80s. He teamed with saxophonist Houston Person for CTI in 1984. Interestingly, he played only acoustic piano on the date. Between 1988 and 1990, McCann released three albums for as many labels, but in 1994, he surprised critics with On the Soul Side, for MusicMasters. A collection of jazz instrumentals, McCann led a quintet that included saxophonist Keith Anderson, trumpeter Jeff Elliott, bassist Abraham Laboriel, and drummer Tony St. James. The only vocal on the set was a medley of "Lift Every Voice and Sing/America the Beautiful" with Lou Rawls. The album received uniformly positive reviews. McCann suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995, but was undaunted. While his ability to play piano was seriously compromised, his singing voice wasn't. As soon as he was strong enough, he recorded Listen Up! with a stellar cast that included pianist George Duke, saxophonists Ernie Watts and Anderson, guitarists David T. Walker and Dori Caymmi, organist Billy Preston and steel drummer Andy Narell among others. McCann sang on only two selections, but the recording was well received given the band's fine performance. McCann returned to a more active schedule during 1996. He worked jazz rooms across the U.S., Europe, and Japan, often with a second keyboardist. In 1997 he released the collaborative Pacifique with European keyboardist Joja Wendt. A series of duets finds McCann comping on a Fender Rhodes piano underneath his gravelly voice with assistance from Wendt's acoustic piano. Many of its tunes are remakes of past McCann rousers like his read of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On," plus "With These Hands" and "Cold Duck Time" (dedicated to the memory of Eddie Harris). McCann also offers a couple of barrelhouse roof raisers, the spirituals "Amazing Grace" and "Prince of Peace," and the standard "What a Wonderful World." Pacifique was largely celebrated by critics. Again, McCann lived on the road with a pick-up band, dividing his time between gigs in Europe, Asia, and to a lesser degree, the U.S. In 2002, McCann surprised critics and fans alike with Pump It Up, a guest-heavy celebration of funk and jazz released on ESC Records. Among the musicians who appeared were Anderson, organist Ricky Peterson, bassist Marcus Miller, vocalist Dianne Reeves, drummer Paulinho Da Costa, vocalist Bonnie Raitt, saxophonist Maceo Parker, and many more. McCann didn't play on the record but sang and rapped. The potent set highlighted a new version of "The Truth" from his Pacific Jazz debut; it featured his modern-day vocal dubbed over the original piano trio's recording. In 2018, McCann self-released A Time Les Christmas. Back in 2012, McCann met jazz pianist Joe Alterman on the stage of the Blue Note in New York. They became fast and enduring friends despite their age difference (more than half-a-century). The pair spoke nearly every day after that meeting. In August 2023, the younger man issued Joe Alterman Plays Les McCann: Big Mo & Little Joe consisting of ten Les originals and "Don't Forget to Love Yourself," co-written by the pair. In December, producer and jazz detective Zev Feldman, in association with Resonance Records, issued Never a Dull Moment! Live from Coast to Coast 1966-1967. It captured McCann's excellent mid-'60s trios playing at Seattle's legendary Penthouse club and The Village Vanguard. Les McCann died on December 29, 2023 from pneumonia; he was 88 years of age.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo
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