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January/February 2003

Les McCann
Pump It Up
ESC

"Pump It Up" is title track of veteran keyboardist/vocalist/raconteur Les McCann's latest release, but the song "Tryin' to Make It Real" seems more appropriate. Through funk tunes "I Can't Stand it," "So What" (no similarity to Miles Davis' classic) and "You Just Can't Smile It Away," the bodacious artist simply tells it like it is. Overall, his tunes consisting of trademark grit and forthrightness, which have influenced many popular smooth-jazz artists, are too unruffled for their guidelines. But for those who like ol' school funk and attitude, he offers a good time and sagelike wisdom for life's difficulties.

McCann's own musical reality is exemplified, too, on the CD: it's apparent he can't play rollicking solos anymore. Sadly, he lost that ability after having a stroke in 1995. On "The Truth," the distinctive piano jaunts come directly from his original 1964 Pacific Jazz recording. Compensating for his diminished chops, the soulful artist lets topflight players like bassist Marcus Miller, guitarist Dean Brown, alto saxophonist Maceo Parker and keyboardist Billy Preston and others do all the incredible funk maneuvering.

Although he can't achieve his renowned hard-driving gospel/jazz runs, McCann still has his ever-endearing raspy voice. For balance, he does masterful duets with dynamic singing talents Dianne Reeves and Bonnie Raitt. The ladies resound like a sweet choir while he tries to "Pump It Up" and sermonizes like a funky voice from above.

With an illustrious career spanning some 40 years, McCann's more than a great player-he's a survivor.

Originally published in January/February 2003
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