May 19, 2024
Ben Sidran
Cien Noches
Nardis Music – 2008

This is Ben Sidran’s first Hammond B3 organ project. It’s an instrument he has played for forty years, and occasionally (as on his recent radio-friendly CD Nick’s Bump) featured on recordings. But CIEN NOCHES — the title refers to the fact that over a period of ten years he performed one hundred nights at Madrid’s famed Cafe Central — is the first time he has paid direct tribute to the instrument and the club scene it spawned.

The album includes the original songs “Get It Yourself,” an acerbic commentary on the rock and roll industry, and “Cave Dancing,” an extended parable of jazz and the roots of religion. In addition, it features two Bob Dylan classics, “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” along with saxophonist Bob Rockwell’s “Drinkin’ and Thinkin,” an obvious party favorite.

Sidran is no stranger to combining jazz, party music and story telling. Raised in the industrial lakeshore city of Racine, Wisconsin, while still in high school, he went to Madison, the home of the University of Wisconsin, to play with his own jazz trio and soon joined a Southern comfort party band led by frat boy singer Steve Miller and his Texas friend, Boz Scaggs. He eventually penned the lyrics for Miller’s hit song “Space Cowboy,” earning a place in rock history and royalties enough to cover his graduate education.

In 1967, when Sidran moved to England to attend Sussex University, where he explored the cultural roots of Black music in America, he did session work at Olympic Studios, including dates with Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones and the band Spooky Tooth. Upon receiving his doctorate in American Studies in 1970, he moved to Los Angeles and entered the record business.

That same year, Holt, Rinehart & Winston published Black Talk: How the Music of Black America Created a Radical Alternative to the Values of Western Literary Tradition, a book based on Sidran’s disseration. In the words of saxophonist / educator Archie Shepp, “it is one of the most important works on the social process by which Black music is communicated.” The next year, Sidran’s first solo album, Feel Your Groove, a jazz/funk hybrid, featuring Blue Mitchell on trumpet (the first of five such engagements), Willie Ruff on bass and Jim Keltner on drums, was released on Capitol Records. It was one of the first examples of so-called “fusion ” music, although at the time, Sidran reported, “We are not fusing anything; we are just playing the music that we love.”

Growing up in the sixties, it was not unusual to love everything from James Brown to John Coltrane. All of Sidran’s subsequent 30+ recordings have exhibited this same passion for the groove. His albums — which include Live at Montreux (1979), featuring Mike Mainieri and the Brecker Brothers; The Cat and the Hat, (1980) featuring Joe Henderson, Tom Harrell and Steve Gadd; Bop City (1983), featuring Phil Woods, Eddie Gomez and Peter Erskine; Life’s a Lesson (1992), an album of Jewish liturgical music featuring Carole King, Joshua Redmond, Bob Berg, Lee Konitz, Eddie Daniels among others; and The Concert for Garcia Lorca (1998) which was nominated for a Grammy — are all grooved yet sophisticated.

In a recent interview, Sidran talked at length about his love for the Hammond organ.

“I first played the Hammond B3 organ forty years ago at a small club in Madison called the Tuxedo Lounge. It was run by a black guitar player from Indianapolis named Johnny Shacklett; he had been a contemporary of Wes Montgomery and he played guitar upside down, without a pick and used octaves and block chords, just like Wes. The club was small, located in the black neighborhood of Madison and had a Hammond with a Leslie speaker. Johnny had just taken it over and wanted music six nights a week. He could only afford two musicians so he hired me to play organ and a drummer named Ron Rhyne, the brother of the great organ player Mel Rhyne.

I had never played organ before but I grew up playing boogie-woogie and stride piano and always had a very strong left hand. Figuring out how to play decent organ bass was not that difficult. We were working six nights a week and after the first month, I could make the instrument rock. I’ll never forget the first time the crowd got on their feet and Johnny started calling my name. It was a religious experience. All together, I worked at the Tuxedo lounge for three months and when the gig ended I was an organ player.

There are many aspects to the Hammond organ that one has to master – not just the drawbars, to get the right sounds, but also the chorus and the percussion settings and the Leslie speeds. All these things contribute to the groove. But the most important thing is the feel of the bass.

Anybody who is a fan of Jimmy Smith or Groove Holmes or Larry Young or Jack McDuff knows that the bass line is everything. Not just the notes – which are important too – but how one uses the position of the notes within the groove to drive the music. Unlike playing in a normal trio or quartet, when you play organ you have the opportunity to set up and support the solos with complete authority using the bass groove.

Along the way I have asked other organ players for advice – Jimmy Smith just smiled, Mel Rhyne showed me some great drawbar settings, Joey DiFrancesco hipped me to some volume pedal technique – but in the end, it all comes down to how you feel about this large piece of furniture. You have to love it before she loves you back. There’s nothing like it.”