Arguments over which jazz accordionists are best is pointless. For one, there were too many great ones in the post-war period, so ranking them is like splitting hairs. For another, any accordionist who swings sounds great, making further discussion moot. With that said, one of the greats was Leon Sash, despite the fact that he recorded only a handful of albums.
Born in 1922, Sash lost his sight at age 11. He took up the accordion in his early teens and began working professionally at age 16. His first recordings were a series of 78s for EmArcy gathered on an LP in 1954 called The Master (EmArcy), which won praise at the time from critics Nat Hentoff and Barry Ulanov. An album for the Storyville label followed in 1956—This is the Jazz Accordion! His appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957 marked a first for the instrument, and the audience gave him a thunderous ovation. An album appeared soon after with his festival performance on one side of a Verve release and pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and her trio on the other.
In 1962 Sash was recorded at the Velvet Heart Club in Chicago, and there was Columbia's Hi-Fi Holiday for Accordion: Twin Accordions of Leon Sash. But that was about it until 1967, when he recorded I Remember Newport (Delmark) in the studio with his trio—Lee Morgan on bass and Ed Uhlig on drums. Sadly, it's the only Sash album that's still in print today as a CD. Sash spent the rest of his life playing club gigs and died in 1979.
I Remember Newport shows off Sash's chugging chord attack as well as his fleet improvisational technique. What made Sash exceptional was his complete jazz command of the instrument, operating from a place of seriousness rather than novelty or pop inflection. In addition, when Sash plays, you can hear the words to the songs in your head, which tells you he was a student of the lyrics rather than just the melody. Hopefully we'll see the other Sash albums in print soon—at least as downloads.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find the Leon Sash Trio's I Remember Newport (Delmark) here.
JazzWax clips: Here's Leon Sash playing Aren't You Glad You're You...
Here's Sash on Pennies From Heaven. Dig the attack and solo work...