Leslie “Les” McCann, an exceptional jazz pianist, composer and vocalist who discovered a young Roberta Flack, and whose own works have been sampled by countless hip-hop artists, died last Friday (Dec. 29) at the age of 88.
Born into a musical family, Sept. 23, 1935 in Lexington, Kentucky, McCann would become one of jazz music’s “most gifted and influential artists,” reads a statement from Kevin Gore, president of Global Catalog, Recorded Music for Warner Music Group.
A self-taught pianist, McCann was an innovator in the soul jazz style, fusing jazz with funk, soul and world rhythms. He mastered all instruments before him, and enjoyed an unusual breakthrough, by winning a Navy talent contest, opening the door to an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
An early hit came with “The Shampoo,” the 1963 instrumental cut with his trio for Pacific Jazz Records.
McCann would enjoy a fruitful relationship with Atlantic Records, releasing a dozen albums on the label from the late-‘60s through to the mid-‘70s.
During that run, Atlantic released Swiss Movement, featuring McCann, frequent collaborator, saxophonist and labelmate Eddie Harris, and trumpeter Benny Bailey. The album earned a Grammy nomination for best jazz performance – small group or soloist with small group, and included the protest song, “Compared to What,” which McCann and Co. performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1969.
Another career highlight would come in 1971, when McCann appeared with a starry cast of artists, including Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers, Santana and Ike & Tina Turner, for an historic 14-hour concert in Accra, Ghana. The event was captured for the concert film Soul To Soul.
His ears might have been just as impressive as his hands. It was McCann who discovered and recommended Roberta Flack to Atlantic Records.
A stroke in the 1990s slowed McCann’s output. So he channeled his energies into painting and photography, and he recovered for a string of music releases, including Pump It Up from 2002.
Gore remembers McCann as a great of jazz, the creator of “timeless” works. “While we deeply mourn his passing,” Gore continues, “his music will live on in the hearts of millions of music fans across the globe.”
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