This interesting LP popped up recently on Ebay. Not one I’d ever seen before but a little Googling and I find Les Strand qualifies as a bona fide Ellingtonian.
A little information about the organist first, however, from Geoff Alexander’s history here.
“(Jimmy) Smith himself, while indicating that he has not been directly influenced by any other organ players, does admit to enjoy listening to only one other, an obscure organist named Les Strand, who he refers to as the "Art Tatum of the organ." Strand, whose father spent most of his career as a musician playing in shows on the theatre circuit in Chicago, taught himself to play the Hammond at the age of fourteen. He began playing in a funeral home before hitting the lounge circuit, and was probably the purest bebop organist who ever played the instrument. His obscurity results from a combination of factors: an inappropriate record label (Fantasy, which had nothing in their catalogue remotely like Strand's jazz organ, and which refused to give much promotion to him), a non-traditional organ (he recorded mostly on the Baldwin, which is not a "bluesy" instrument), and technique, which was so complex that the basic jazz-blues oriented organ trio setting would simply not have worked well with his Tatum-Tristano influenced style. Strand rarely traveled out of the Chicago area, and never appeared in a large East Coast city. He is rare among jazz organists in that his first instrument was the organ itself (he started with the Hammond at age 14), and his total recorded output consists of three albums on Fantasy, two of which feature the Baldwin organ, and a promotional album for Yamaha. Interestingly, neither Leonard Feather, who produced his Yamaha record, nor Chicago jazz radio programmer Dick Buckley, who wrote the liner notes for one of his records, knew Strand's whereabouts, and small wonder: he retired from active playing at the young age of 40 to pursue a teaching career in 1964, has since retired from teaching, and now lives in Kansas City. Strand's version of "If I Had You" (example number 10 on the cassette) is a tour-de-force of dynamics, comping, and just plain magnificent keyboard technique. The "cool" sound of the trio is a result of the fact that the guitarist 'and the drummer were currently then working with accordionist Art Van Damme's group, and were accustomed to playing in a relatively quiet setting (the drummer, in fact, uses brushes throughout the album.) Although he preferred the Hammond, Strand's father worked in the Chicago Baldwin store and was able to introduce him to the wider dynamic range of that organ. The Baldwin, however, did not record as well as was expected, and therefore he returned to the Hammond for his final recording on Fantasy, "Les Strand Plays Ellington".) The Baldwin does emphasize Strand's horn-like quality, and in using the "vibes" setting, actually evokes the sound of a guitar more than anything else.”
As for the Ellington connection, well, Exhibit One: this from Ken Vail’s excellent Duke’s Diary:
Whether this Milt Grayson recording was ever released, it is hard to say. I haven’t been able to find a trace of a commercial release on line.
In addition to producing Les Strand, the keyboardist – who, in fact, favoured a Baldwin organ – also played with the Ellington band. A contributor to the Organissimo jazz discussion forum writes:
"I had the privilege of studying Jazz Organ with him for two years in Chicago and he personally gave me a few recordings on Cassette Tape, which I still have and am remastering to CD but probably not for release. He did have a unique and complex style. I have a copy of that Yamaha recording he did, which was done after her won the top prize at the world finals of the Yamaha International Electone Festival. I believe Les was the first american to win the world title in that competition. At one point he did several recordings with Duke Ellington when he would come to the Blue Note Jazz club in Chicago but Les told me that, unfortunately, those recordings got lost somewhere in the Ellington estate. I don't think they were ever published but it sure would have been a blast to hear. He was immensely talented and a great teacher.(My emphasis.)"
I wonder will these Blue Note recordings ever come to light? Until then, we have this souvenir of Les Strand’s association with Ellington.