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Remembering jazz pianist and 'Compared to What' singer Les McCann

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Not every jazz musician, even the most successful, has a song that hits the pop charts. The pianist Les McCann, who died last Friday at the age of 88, had a big one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMPARED TO WHAT")

LES MCCANN: (Singing) Everybody now - trying to make it real compared to what? Come on, baby.

SUMMERS: That is McCann's 1969 live recording of "Compared To What," a song that became his signature. But he had a long and celebrated career that preceded that hit and followed it. We're joined now by musician and broadcaster Greg Bryant of WRTI-FM in Philadelphia. Greg, welcome.

GREG BRYANT, BYLINE: Thank you so much, Juana, it's great to be here.

SUMMERS: Greg, tell us, if you can, how McCann came to record this somewhat unlikely hit and just how popular it was.

BRYANT: Oh, my goodness. Well, Les McCann and his buddy Eddie Harris, the saxophonist, were invited to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. They got there a couple of days before, but their band didn't arrive. So the day of the show, the bassist, Leroy Vinnegar, gets there. The drummer, Donald Dean, he gets there, but there's no time to rehearse. So there's this brief soundcheck where Les shows Eddie at the piano two of the songs, and then they have to go on. So essentially, "Compared To What" was this tune that Les knew from the songwriter Eugene McDaniels. It was kind of in the air. It was kind of going around in their particular musician circles. Somehow, it wasn't a train wreck.

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

BRYANT: Although they both thought that the performance was so rough around the edges it would never pass as an album.

SUMMERS: What about his other hits? How did he follow that incredible signature song up?

BRYANT: Well, Juana, his opus was released just a couple of years later, "Invitation To Openness." It came to him in a dream, and he was also inspired by Frank Zappa's "Freak Out!" album. Frank was a big Les McCann fan, and he invited Les and Dr. John to participate in this kind of freewheeling improvisation on percussion instruments, not even their native pianos or keyboards.

(SOUNDBITE OF LES MCCANN'S "THE LOVERS")

BRYANT: Well, Les was in that spirit. And he had this dream about an expanded, extended ensemble. And he called up the record label and said, I want these guys, I want them in New York by next week. Producer Joel Dorn made it happen. And we have this expansive classic, but it grooves just irreverently hard.

SUMMERS: Les McCann was one of six kids, and as I understand it, he was somewhat self-taught. What else should we know about his young life?

BRYANT: Well, his first instrument was the sousaphone (laughter) in high school. So that love of bass, if you will, stayed with him. When he got to the piano and began teaching himself gospel and blues and eventually the language of jazz, that bass was just the bedrock, the benchmark of his sound and his spirit.

SUMMERS: And, Greg, I just want to end by asking you personally, how will you remember Les McCann?

BRYANT: As a 3-year-old, my mind was blown at my Fisher-Price turntable from "Invitation To Openness," and I got the chance to tell him that. I remember Les as a funny guy and a reverent guy, but a person who really wanted his art to transcend his being. And you all are helping that to happen. So I thank you, Juana, for the interest.

SUMMERS: Greg Bryant of WRTI-FM in Philadelphia and SiriusXM's Real Jazz. Thank you, Greg.

BRYANT: Thank you, Juana.

(SOUNDBITE OF LES MCCANN'S "THE LOVERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Greg Bryant
Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.