Les McCann + Lou Rawls – On the Soul Side (1994)

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NICK DERISO: Pianist Les McCann is something like a lesser Horace Silver — somebody with a soulful, bluesy delivery who often strayed a step too far into pop.

This release showed why: Despite its many joys, a fat electric bass gave the CD an unwanted fusion-y feel — in particular, on the otherwise pleasant “Shambala” and the unfortunately named “New Blues.” For all McCann’s brilliance, the rest of his band remained, at times, disappointingly rote.

Best to play closer attention to the guest turns by the often-fulfilling saxist Eddie Harris, who was so in-the-pocket on “Ignominy”; and singer Lou Rawls on “God Bless America” — a tune that neatly recalled his reading of “God Bless the Child” on McCann’s “Stormy Monday” long player from 1962. That LP launched Rawls’ career, and they never stopped successfully working together (see embedded live take on “Stormy Monday” from 1990.).

Like, say, Joe Williams, Rawls’ voice aged into a wonderous, though sometimes curious, thing. There was a depth that was almost unfathomable, and that meant a risk of being cartoonish, too. They both ended up making some unfortunate career choices, as well.

This is solid blues, though, so Rawls more than pulls it off.

Harris remained an important collaborator, having helped launch McCann’s foray into more mainstream chart success with 1969’s “Compared To What,” which included stinging criticism of the Vietnam War — and was later featured in the Martin Scorsese film “Casino” and also during “Lockdown,” an episode of the ABC series “Lost” from Season 2.

The guy’s been a celebrity, then, for 40 years. Yet McCann can still rip off a stirring riff. In fact, throughout “On the Soul Side,” which was released just before a stroke sidelined McCann until 2002, his playing was a spontaneous gestalt of funky, almost stride, riffs and an airy, hang-back precision.

Other points of interest from this MusicMasters release included the work of trumpeter/flugelhornist Jeff Elliott on “Dippermouth.”

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