Saturday, 18 October 2014

Organ-frowned-on Spaces

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 
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.

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