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Les McCann, jazz pianist with a soulful holler, dies at 88

Les McCann performs at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1974.
Tom Copi
Getty Images
Les McCann performs at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1974.

Les McCann was already an established solo artist — a blues-forward jazz pianist in his 30s, with more than two dozen albums to his name — when he had a career-defining moment at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival. There, during an impromptu jam with the saxophonist Eddie Harris, he dug into a new song by his friend Gene McDaniels, which struck a cultural nerve.

The song was "Compared to What," an anguished yawp of disillusionment that Roberta Flack had recorded several months earlier for her debut album, First Take. McCann begins his version with a rollicking vamp, which he takes through a handful of escalating key modulations before a startling entry on vocals, two minutes in. With a soulful holler, he brings plainspoken fire to lyrics that skewer rampant greed, religious hypocrisy and the quagmire in Vietnam: "The president, he's got his war," McCann sings in the third verse. "Folks don't know just what it's for."

The song's temperament, outraged and despairing, captured something crucial about the era; so too did its rhythmic drive and righteous, consuming fervor. When Atlantic Records released "Compared to What" as a single, it spent four weeks on the Billboard Hot 100; Swiss Movement, the live album on which it appears, held a spot on the Billboard 200 for a 38 weeks. The song remained a calling card for McCann for the rest of his musical career, which yielded many more successful albums — including a sequel with Harris, Second Movement, in 1971 — as well as samples by hip-hop artists like Massive Attack, Mobb Deep and the Notorious B.I.G.

McCann died on Dec. 29, 2023, at a hospital in Los Angeles, at 88, of pneumonia. Alan Abrahams, a veteran producer and record executive who served as his manager, confirmed his death, noting that McCann had lived at a nursing facility for the last four years.

With a ringing, percussive piano style and a rousing command of the beat, McCann always amounted to more than one breakout hit could encapsulate. The grit and grease in his playing, informed by his early experience in the gospel church, helped establish the subgenre known as soul jazz. That sound is already fully present on an album he recorded live in 1961, Les McCann Ltd. Plays the Shampoo at The Village Gate. (Along with "The Shampoo," an early hit, it includes McCann originals titled "Someone Stole My Chitlins" and "Filet of Soul.")

The urge to move his audiences extended to a new sonic palette when McCann embraced electric pianos and synthesizers — notably on the 1972 album Invitation to Openness, which features Yusef Lateef on assorted reeds and flutes, and Cornell Dupree on electric guitar. His subsequent albums on Atlantic, often incorporating synths and clavinet, formed the basis for his popularity as a sample source for hip-hop producers.

Leslie Coleman McCann was born on Sept. 23, 1935 in Lexington, Ky. His father, James, worked at the Lexington Water Company; his mother, Anna, was a homemaker who took occasional housekeeping jobs. He was one of six children, with four brothers and a sister. "​​Everybody was in a position of doing the best they could with whatever," he recalled in a 2015 interview with Red Bull Music Academy. "We never thought of ourselves as being poor."

Still, McCann grew up with limited resources, and was almost entirely self-taught as a pianist. He played sousaphone and drums in his high school marching band, and enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17. He often told a story about hearing Erroll Garner's recording of "Lullaby of Birdland" during his service, and having the sudden realization that the piano was his calling. But while stationed in the San Francisco Bay Area, he won a talent contest as a vocalist — an accolade that landed him an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956.

After his discharge, he formed a piano trio, which found work backing Gene McDaniels at the Purple Onion Jazz Club in San Francisco. McDaniels took the trio on tour, after which McCann moved to Los Angeles, working at clubs like the Hillcrest and signing to the Pacific Jazz label. The band that he called Les McCann Ltd. recorded a string of surefooted albums, and also played on the debut album by the jazz-R&B singer Lou Rawls, in 1962.

McCann eventually left the Pacific Jazz roster for Limelight, a Mercury subsidiary overseen by Quincy Jones, before landing at Atlantic Records. There his partnership with the producer Joel Dorn yielded a number of successes, starting with the 1969 album Much Les. Featuring McCann's electric piano against a complement of strings, the album also spotlighted his vocals, notably on a ballad called "With These Hands," which became a hit.

Here and throughout his career, McCann faced enduring critiques of his piano playing, which lacked the outward sophistication and technical precision of some of his peers, especially those who'd mastered the lingua franca of bebop. "I think what Les did musically, for most of his career, was really brave," attests Joe Alterman, a pianist who regarded McCann as a mentor, and released an album in tribute last year. "He wasn't a bebop player. He appreciated it, but he really loved these joyful piano players. So I think Les was kind of going against the grain."

McCann's most recent release, just out on Resonance Records, bolsters the point. Titled Never a Dull Moment! Live From Coast to Coast 1966-67, it features a few effervescent trio dates from the same era, at the Penthouse in Seattle (1966) and the Village Vanguard in New York (1967). There are, in fact, some bebop tunes, like Dizzy Gillespie's "Blue 'n' Boogie," in the set list. But the spirit of the playing has little room for bebop's idiomatic concerns. It adheres instead to a characterization of McCann from Bob Porter's 2016 book Soul Jazz: Jazz in the Black Community, 1945-1975, as "a pianist of enormously contagious enthusiasm."

McCann was certainly that, and more besides. He had a good ear for talent: he was the one who brought Roberta Flack to Atlantic, and he is credited with discovering the soul-jazz organist Richard "Groove" Holmes. And he was a gifted photographer whose portraits were anthologized in the acclaimed 2015 collection Invitation To Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography Of Les McCann 1960-1980.

At the same time, McCann held a steadfast devotion to certain core principles, in music as in life. "The blues is definitely one of my major religions," he affirmed in a 1986 interview with Ben Sidran. "I mean, I like to think of whatever we do as something that's uplifting and giving to the world so that it's on the positive side, that is saying that we are here for a purpose. We are a part of this. We do count."

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