Lennie Niehaus
Sal Nistico: Interview 1

Sal Nistico (1940–91)

Salvatore ‘Sal’ Nistico was best known as a fiery, big-toned, featured tenor saxophone soloist in big bands, especially Woody Herman’s during the 1960s and later. Born in Syracuse, New York, he began his career playing with local rhythm and blues groups, then gained attention working with the Mangione brothers (trumpeter Chuck, pianist Gap).

Always a powerful big band presence, he made impressive recordings with Herman, played also with the orchestras of Count Basie, Buddy Rich and Don Ellis and returned to the Herman band for periods in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nistico was sometimes compared with Tubby Hayes because of their similarly virile sound, mastery of bebop style, and technical excellence. In his last decade Nistico settled in Europe and played and recorded with small groups.

Biography by Roger Cotterrell


Everything's a rhythm

In this first interview with Les Tomkins in 1965, Sal Nistico talks about the experience of playing as a star soloist and section man in Woody Herman’s early 1960s orchestra.

Read the original article in Crescendo, January 1965, pp27.


Sal Nistico: Interview 2

Sal Nistico: Interview 1

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Interview date 1st January 1965
Interview source Jazz Professional
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Forename Sal
Surname Nistico
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Interview Transcription

There’s been some great nights since I joined the Herman band in March ‘62. Excluding the five-month break I had, that’s almost two years’ playing time—with very little time off. Every now and again the band clicks, but you got so many guys. Everything’s a rhythm, I believe there’s going to be moments of greatness and moments of real beatness.

 So I enjoy moments. Other nights, when I’m on the road, it gets depressing. But I think every guy in a big band goes through all that. It’s rough—to try and create Instant Jazz. You turn it on, turn it off—get up and play, go back in the section. It’s hard if you don’t numb yourselves to things.

There’s always professionalism. That’s one thing I learned in this band, as far as performance goes. No matter how out of your head, or how juiced, or how tired you are—you’re going to try to do the gig, at least. Then there are nights when you feel like doing something extra. If everybody feels the same way at the same time, the band clicks. Being young, this band is primarily involved in selling excitement—and sometimes you’re not excited. But you have to be. That’s when it can take a lot out of you.

The discipline imposed on me is great, because it used to take me 20 or 30 choruses in a small group before I even hit a groove. But now—you’ve got to condense. So if I ever go back to a small group, I think it’ll help me there. And it’s helped me as far as ears—hearing the notes that’ll sound good with the chart, and all that, instead of just having a wide open road. A little discipline is very good—until it becomes inhibiting.

This is not a standard sax section—three tenors and baritone. But it’s a ball—it’s something new for you. It’s actually helped me technically—finding the centre of the sound. It’s helped me saxophone-wise, too—things that I needed. I was pretty raw before. Which is all right, but you can still be raw with refinement.

I hadn’t worked in a big band before. I was with a group called The Jazz Brothers for two years, and before that rhythm’n’blues bands, organ trios, and all that. And I’d been doing pit-band work in Syracuse. I got a call from a friend who was in the band. This was 1962 and the band was going to disband soon—business was that bad. I just came in for a little while and ended up staying, because a lot of cats started coming in and out. But I was a complete amateur, as far as big band playing goes. My reading was mediocre and my blending techniques in the section were really bad. It took me a long time to grow into it.

I’d felt good in the Jazz Brothers group and seemed to be developing—so I tried to retain that. I didn’t want to get too involved in any one facet, or to consciously change my style.

It’s hard to stay out of a rut. I’m in one now, I think. Every now and then I break free. But these days are not like the old days—you can’t find that many places to go and play. And when I do, it’s not the same thing. because you’ve got one scene so much on your mind that it’s hard to get back into the other thing again. It would take me weeks of steady playing with a small group to get back to that type of thinking—stretching out and feeling more confident and everything. Even during the period I was out of the band, I was still in a rut. I worked three or four weeks with the Slide Hampton Octet on baritone. I gigged around Syracuse and did a lot of free blowing on sessions. But I was in a weird mind. I should have gone out and really got some work—I probably could have done it. I did a lot of thinking, though. I needed that five months bad.

I get a chance to play a lot, as compared to many tenor players with big bands. The discipline is inhibiting in a lot of ways, so I really can’t say that I’m into as much as Coltrane and those WYS. I’m always searching, but a lot of times I’ve got the feeling I should play something that fits. Tenor has really been explored and has gone through a lot of changes in the last fifteen years or so. I really wonder what is left to play. But I think the best way to go is just to enjoy what you’re doing, if it’s possible, because styles grow naturally that way. You’ve got to go for something of your own, but be influenced by everyone.

For me—I listen to everyone, because I’m eclectic. I believe that eventually all these styles will come together when I’m older. Then maybe it’ll be a broader thing. I don’t know. It’s not that conscious. I just think that to enjoy is to be right —instead of to think about it, and try to find something that somebody else hasn’t done. It can be very mechanical and cold that way. It’s got to be what comes naturally—even though it might sound similar to something that people have played many times. But I feel that that’s honesty. Being honest is not necessarily being real different—until you get older. My personality isn’t fully formed. I don’t think I’ve really matured as a person yet.

 Copyright © 1965, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.