I remember exactly where I was (what car, on what road, in what direction, on what radio station) when, as a college undergraduate, I first heard the iconic 1969 performance of “Compared to What” by Les McCann and Eddie Harris. I could count on one hand the number of Les McCann references I heard from teachers or peers, but that moment changed me, and I’m especially grateful that subsequent compilations (including a couple volumes of collected work from the Pacific Jazz label with which he got his start) alerted me to the need for a deeper dive into his remarkably soulful and elegant piano playing. It feels weird to use a word like “underappreciated” for a jazz musician who literally had a crossover hit song, but I do sometimes wonder how much more often his name would come up surrounding the emergence of the “soul jazz” subgenre if not for his being based in California, best known for its “cool jazz.”
In any case, maestro McCann, who passed away at the end of 2023, actually had an interestingly fertile year between Joe Alterman’s lovely tribute record “Big Mo and Little Joe” and the issuing of some of McCann’s own unearthed live recordings from the mid-1960s. While a stroke robbed him of his ability to play the piano a quarter century prior to his departure, his legacy is substantial and I hope that, even if posthumously, folks take the opportunity to dig in.
In chronological order, here are some of my favorites from his discography:
1 ) “Vacushna” (aka “Vakushna”) from various compilations (1959)
I first heard this track on an imported compilation of jazz piano that Ted Dunbar loaned me in the mid-1990s and simply referred to as “all them pianists.” It was the first I heard of Les outside of “Compared to What” (and came soon on the heels of my first hearing that) and his soulful, grooving work alongside Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Ron Jefferson on drums offers a great summary of the sound on which he’d spend the ensuing years expounding.
2 ) “Them That’s Got” from Groove by Richard “Groove” Holmes (1961)
As much as I love the piano/organ combination, it is relatively underrepresented in jazz, but this album, featuring bandleader Richard “Groove” Holmes on organ and Ben Webster on tenor saxophone, is a wonderfully-blended example of that. Here they swing madly but patiently on a then-contemporary Ray Charles tune.
3 ) “Dorene Don’t Cry” from That’s Where It’s At by Stanley Turrentine (1962)
Les recorded this lovely original ballad under his own name the previous year, and it’s wonderful to hear his patience and lyricism as he accompanies the great Stanley Turrentine on this version.
4 ) “Shiny Stockings” from Soul Hits (1963)
This whole record features bluesy jazz tunes delivered by the tight quartet of McCann, Joe Pass, Paul Chambers, and Paul Humphrey. I have a particular soft spot for hearing folks play the blues over more harmonically “sophisticated” material, and Les offers a clinic in just that on this Frank Foster tune associated with the Basie Band.
5 ) “Blues for Yna Yna” from Jazz Waltz by Les McCann and the Jazz Crusaders (1963)
Before they became influential ‘70s fusion artists, the Jazz Crusaders were knee-deep in the West Coast straight-ahead world. Here they welcome McCann to the fold, and this soulful Gerald Wilson waltz (best known for the composer’s own recording featuring the aforementioned “Groove” Holmes) also offers our first recorded glimpse at McCann’s work on electric piano.
6 ) “Benjamin” from Much Les (1968)
This slow-simmering tune comes from Les’s debut on Atlantic Records matches his trio (with Vinnegar and drummer Donald Dean) with a William Fischer string arrangement that embodies the lush but not syrupy sound of much of his arranging work for the label.
7 ) “Compared to What” from Swiss Movement (1969)
Every track on this album is a gem, but could I really leave this one off? If you’ve heard one Les McCann track, it’s most likely this one, but it’s also an instance where the performance lives up to any hype.
8 ) “Shorty Rides Again” from Second Movement (1971)
I was tempted to include the poignant, sadly-still-relevant “Universal Prisoner,” but ultimately I keep going back to this gem of early jazz/funk featuring Eddie Harris and Les (on electric piano) burning atop a gnarly groove laid down by Dean, and session aces Cornell Dupree on guitar and Jerry Jemmott on bass.
9 ) “Ignominy” from On the Soul Side (1994)
Is it cheating to fast forward two-plus decades and yet still choose the one Eddie Harris cameo among Les’s three MusicMasters albums? If so, I apologize, but what a wonderful document of how much they both had in the tank in spite of the sad hindsight of how short-lived that would be (on account of Eddie’s passing and Les’s stroke)
10 ) “The Truth” from Pump It Up (2001)
Normally I’m not a huge fan of the technological nostalgia trip of folks recording over older tracks, but this is a noteworthy exception, with Les and Bonnie Raitt offering a vocal duet over some vintage early-career Les McCann piano.