I find it interesting that several top jazz guitarists of the '50s steered clear of recording as leaders. Billy Bauer recorded only one album, Plectrist, as a leader in 1956. The same goes for Barry Galbraith, who took charge only on Guitar & the Wind in 1958. There usually are two reasons for this: First, most superb guitarists worked relentlessly as session players and didn't have time to write charts. Second, guitarists in general are harmonists and more comfortable complementing others. Add guitarist Les Spann to the "Only Once" club. [Photo: Julius Watkins and Les Spann in 1960]
Despite appearing on 78 top jazz sessions between 1957 and 1967, Spann recorded only Gemini as a leader in December 1960 for Riverside's Jazzland budget label. I spoke with Orrin Keepnews late yesterday afternoon about Spann. More with Orrin in a moment.
What made Spann special is that he was equally proficient on the flute as he was on guitar, and both instruments are on full display here. Joining Spann on two Gemini sessions were Julius Watkins (French horn), Tommy Flanagan (piano), Sam Jones (bass) and Albert "Tootie" Heath and Louis Hayes (drums).
Here's Spann's partial bio from the album's original liner notes by Orrin in 1960:
"Les Spann was born in Pine Bluff, Ark., in 1932. Attracted to the guitar since childhood because he 'always liked the sound,' he taught himself to play it while attending high school in New York. Then, becoming a music major at Tennessee State University in Nashville, he selected the flute when required to learn a second instrument.
"Spann's return to New York City in 1957 coincided with the Army draft call of his friend, guitarist Calvin Newborn, who recommended Les to take his place with brother Phineas Newborn's group. In August 1958, he began an active year with Dizzy Gillespie's quintet, working alongside bassist Sam Jones."
Picking up the story, in 1959 Les joined Quincy Jones' big band for a European tour. This was Jones' famed Birth of a Big Band orchestra. He also played on Red Garland's Solar and appeared in Charles Mingus' Town Hall concert orchestra in 1962. Record dates followed with Duke Pearson in 1965, and Sonny Stitt and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis in 1966. His last known jazz recording was with Johnny Hodges in 1967.
Why did Spann record only one leadership date? And given that he died in 1989, what was he doing all those years in between? I gave Orrin [pictured] a call to chat. Here's what he had to say:
"I don't recall much about Les but I know I liked the album he recorded. Despite the appeal of Gemini, nothing really came of it, which happened from time to time with plenty of good artists for a variety of reasons.
"Les was a very quiet guy and sort of dignified—a funny word for a musician. He never got in the groove of pushing his greatness on people, which to some extent was necessary to stand out as a leader.
"My guess is that during the years after he stopped recording, he was probably doing a lot of studio work, which, of course, wouldn't be credited in jazz discographies. The guitar and flute were instruments that were fairly well in demand and he played them both beautifully. There really weren’t that many top-notch studio players in the late '60s and beyond.
"Barry Galbraith [pictured] was a slightly different case. He typecast himself as a session player and made a good living doing it. And he was just about the most capable and quickest of the New York studio musicians.
"Of couse, he too recorded only once as a leader. The only other album that comes to mind with Barry standing out was John Benson Brooks' Alabama Concerto for Riverside in 1958 with Cannonball Adderley and Art Farmer. I still go back and listen to that album every once in a while and I'm always struck by the playing, which is remarkably good.
"With Les, it was a personality thing. He just wasn’t a pressure guy. Not everyone is cut out to be that way."
Once again, Orrin had great instincts and sensitivity in 1960 with Les Spann. He knew that recording Spann on guitar and flute with the mellow sound of Julius Watkins' French horn would result in a special recording. Listening to it today, the entire album is superbly constructed by Spann, and the merged sound of guitar, flute and horn is rich, thoughtful and mellifluous. What a shame Spann didn't bother to record a few more albums at the helm.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Les Spann's Gemini at iTunes or here. Dig Spann's own Afterthought, a gorgeous ballad.
JazzWax clip: Here's Les Spann on guitar in Quincy Jones' big band in 1960...