Entering his 60th year, pianist-singer Les McCann was as busy as he’d ever been.
The gospel-flavored soul-jazz giant, whose live recording of “Compared to What” with saxophonist Eddie Harris in 1969 marked the high point of jazz-pop crossover, was keeping an active touring schedule with three different bands. Music Masters had just released his recording “On the Soul Side” to good reviews.
Then, in January, while on tour in Zelle, Germany, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. A blood clot discovered later in his leg complicated matters. It was looking like his career as a performing musician was over.
But it wasn’t. McCann plays tonight at the Hyatt Newporter; it will be his first appearance with his own group since the stroke. On the phone this week from his home in Van Nuys, he pulled no punches while discussing his capabilities. “I still have some paralysis on my right side. I can’t hold a note on a sustaining keyboard. But I’ll sing. And I’ll play what piano I can. This is my attempt to come back out. We’ll have to see what happens.”
He has been working with the keyboard since June when he joined flutist Herbie Mann’s reunion band to sing “Compared to What” at the Playboy Jazz Festival. “During the rehearsal, they brought out an organ, and I began to turn out a few notes, just patting, giving some fill, and Herbie said, ‘Yeah. That’s good. Do that.’ ”
Though it wasn’t the kind of soul-stirring, barn-burning play McCann’s fans love, it was a start. Since then, he has been working daily with his friend and fellow pianist Jon Mayer, who will play piano for the Hyatt Newporter show. “I’d been doing a duo performance each year with Jon at the Jazz Bakery,” McCann said. “He’s a wonderful player. Now he comes over every day and we sit and play together to see what we can do.”
Meanwhile, “Oscar Peterson (who also suffered a stroke in the past year) called me, and to have him tell me how things went with him, how important the therapy was to him; well, that was very encouraging.”
He paused and laughed. “Bill Cosby said about Oscar, ‘The bad news is he had a stroke. The good news is now he sounds like Les McCann.’ ”
The five weeks he spent recovering in Zelle were packed with similarly positive experiences. “I was stuck in this very small town, but the people there were very beautiful, and there were no language problems even though I didn’t speak German and they didn’t speak English. And they were total jazz fans. One person sent me a keyboard, another brought me 100 CDs and a shortwave radio. People came to visit from Berlin and Hamburg, and I got calls from all over the world.
“It was as if this network suddenly developed. I’d never seen so many people come together for someone. The support was unbelievable.”
Now he is looking to get busy again. He already is working on a new album, one that will feature a host of guest artists. “I’m going to call in all my chips, to see if those people really meant it when they said they’d like to record with me. I’m asking Stanley Turrentine, and Grover [Washington] said he would like to be part of it. We’ll just see who can come through.
“I’m eternally thankful to be a musician in this lifetime,” he said. “Music carries to all people, opens the door to their love and gives you a clear vision that we’re all connected, all around the world; we all have the same wants and concerns.”
* Les McCann and the Magic Band play tonight at the Hyatt Newporter, 1107 Jamboree Road, Newport Beach. Saxophonist Art Porter opens the show at 7:30. $15. (714) 729-1234, (714) 650-5483.