Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Les McCann, pianist, vocalist, composer, bandleader, recording artist was born on September 23,1935 in Lexington, Kentucky. Les is a self-taught musician. In the early fifties, he left the South, joined the Navy. While stationed in California, he took every opportunity to visit San Franciscos's jazz clubs, where he first experienced Miles Davis and his music. His firt major influence though, was pianist Erroll Garner, who shared the same exuberance and bursting vocalizations.

Already established on the soul jazz scene of the 1960s, Les McCann became an international jazz superstar with the release of “Swiss Movement,” recorded at the 1968 Montreux Jazz Festival with the late Eddie Harris. The album generated a multi-million selling hit single, “Compared To What,” and placed McCann and Harris in the forefront of the jazz market. There was a lot more to Les McCann than that show in Switzerland,both before and after. As a musician, he moved comfortably from one jazz style to the next, demonstrating impressive chops from bop to fusion, from vocals to virtually any kind of keyboard he puts his hands to.

After his discharge from the military, McCann moved to Los Angeles and formed a trio, Les McCann Ltd., which became a favorite on the Sun Strip in the late fifties.
Les McCann was recommended by Miles Davis to play with Cannonball Adderly, but turned it down in order to form his own band. In 1960, McCann was signed to the L.A.-based Pacific Jazz, where he became the label's top-selling artist, debuting with “Plays the Truth.” (1960) He also co-headed albums with label mates such as organist Richard “Groove” Holmes, saxman Ben Webster, The Jazz Crusaders and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra.

McCann's laid-back personality has always been an opening for musicians to perform together. 1960/2 Antibes Jazz Festival was a hit as he shared the stage with Ray Charles and Count Basie. The following year he toured Europe with Zoot Sims and Charlie Byrd. He would move constantly, playing in countless sessions with the greatest names in jazz.

He co-produced the debut album from Lou Rawls, “Stormy Monday,” (1960) and appeared on records with Stanley Turrentine, who played sax on McCann's “In New York,” (1960) and McCann on Turrentine's “That's Where It's At.” (1960) In the early seventies, McCann heard Roberta Flack for the first time at a nightclub in Washington D.C., and immediately became her champion, as he did similarly with Mahalia Jackson and Nancy Wilson.

After a brief stint on the Limelight label (subsidiary of Mercury Records), McCann signed to Atlantic Records in 1967, his first major label deal. His perfect marriage of church and swing captured the spirit of the times in the same way that Ray Charles' mixture of gospel and blues heralded the arrival of soul.

Les is best known for his work in the late 60s and early 70s with partner/saxman Eddie Harris, whom he first encountered at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The resulting album, “Swiss Movement,” (1960) was a top selling jazz record, and the single “Compared to What,” went platinum. The same year, Much Les, without Harris, hit hard with the ballad “With These Hands.” “Second Movement,” (1971), reunited McCann and Harris, and acclaimed recordings such as “Invitation to Openness,” (1972), the double-record “Live at Montreux,” (1973), and “Layers,” (1973) followed. The latter was a revolutionary, improvisational experiment that included 15 musicians and one 27-minute song.

Les McCann helped pioneer the use of electric piano, clavinet, and synthesizer, starting with this work which was one of the earliest electronic jazz albums.

The early eighties saw the creation of McCann's Magic Band, which has recorded a number of independently-released albums and featured Jeff Elliott, Keith Anderson, Tony St. James, and Abraham Laboriel. His release, “On the Soul Side” (MusicMasters 1994), featured his Magic Band and once again reunited him with Eddie Harris and Lou Rawls.

When his ability to play was devastated by a crippling stroke and carpal tunnel syndrome, McCann's creative drive went on. He returned to the stage as a leader while still limited to the use of a single finger, moved by his ever present desire to communicate the love that inspires his music.

Les McCann is an inspiration, not only as an artist but because he is not afraid of anything. He comments, “I never plan the future,” which leaves him with nothing to fear, and more space in which to create. His teaming with producer Alan Abrahams and the musicians on “Listen Up!” is brilliant and healing as well ... he remembers favorably the spontaneous energy created in the 1995 recording session and notes that “it was evidently meant to be, thanks to the people who have helped me, including the musicians, the hospitals, the incredible amount of angels in my life.”

In 1997 Les teamed up with Joja Wendt, Europe's hottest pianist, resulting in the outstanding recording “Pacifique.” In 1998, 32 jazz released “How's your Mother?” a classic live performance recorded at the Village Vanguard in 1967.

Rhino/Atlantic has recently re-released “Swiss Movement,” featuring a new track and some new arrangements. This reasserts the recording as being one of the most popular in the history of jazz record sales, and has crossed over into the digital age as well.

In 2002 Les McCann was back in action and offered a new release “Pump it Up,” and on this one he called on a little help from friends as Billy Preston, Diane Reeves, Maceo Parker, Marcus Miller, and Bonnie Raitt.

As if a lifetime of musical success is not enough, Les' creations go beyond the keys. His personal relationships with jazz legends such as Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and Duke Ellington, have been documented in a collection of more than 8000 photographs that Les has taken over the years. As a serious photographer, Les has built a darkroom in his home, and has sold a significant number of pieces. A large exhibition of his work was exhibited at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Enjoy Les and Ed Harris singing "Compared to What?'
Reference - AAJ

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