Sal Nistico: Interview 1
Sal Nistico: Interview 2

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


The most exciting thing in the world

Interviewed by Les Tomkins in 1974, Sal Nistico talks about life as a musician in New York and about wanting to find new musical directions beyond established expectations about his style.

Read the original article in Crescendo, December 1974, pp12, 14.


Sal Nistico: Interview 3

Sal Nistico: Interview 2

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1974
Interview source Jazz Professional
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Forename Sal
Surname Nistico
Quantity 2

Interview Transcription

My last stay in Europe ended in ‘66, after I went back with the Woody Herman band. I’d been living in Sweden, I joined Woody in London, and went with him on a State Department tour through Africa. After that, I went back to live in the States, worked with Basie for about eight months, followed by another spell with Woody. Then I lived in Los Angeles for a year or so, back with Woody, and then I lived in Boston—I was teaching a little bit up there. My next move was to go home to Syracuse, New York, where 1 worked with my brother. I’ve been in New York for the last three years, actually.

In New York, I’ve worked with a Latin band, Tito Puente—I enjoyed that. And I’ve done some things with Chuck Israels’ National Jazz Ensemble; we played some concerts along with the groups of Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans. This was a big band, but not your typical situation at all—it was a sort of jazz repertory company. The line-up varied all the time, but would include cats like Randy Brecker, Mike Lawrence, Curtis Fuller. Completely eclectic—you’d do “Rockin’ In Rhythm” one tune, and next you might do “Nefertiti”, completely free, without any chord changes. What I really found enjoyable was the broad approach to music —no pigeon-holing at all. I only played on about three concerts, but we did a lot of rehearsing.

I work around on my own account outside of New York. I haven’t done any New York club dates, although I believe I was due to. For a while I wasn’t too well, but now I’m just working my way back through to what I want to do. During this tour with Buddy’s band, I seem to have been getting back into shape. Over at Ronnie’s the other night, I had a ball, sitting in with Pete King and Stan Robinson. Right now, I think I’m on the verge of playing as good as I’ve ever played —in fact, better than I have in a long time.

I’m still looking for a direction, you know. But if I just follow the horn’s lead, let it tell me what to do, without being pretentious or anything—it seems almost like a museum piece. Unfortunately, the way everything is going now, it’s hard for me to work and be myself. Because what I really like to do is just get a good rhythm section and swing. And if that happens, I’m sure the people dig it.

See, I’ve been working for other people for so long. I wouldn’t mind working with somebody who was into what I want to do. After a while, you get tired of always having to compromise and adapt. I mean, it’s good when you’re young; it teaches you discipline, certainly. But I want to have a group where I can . . . not really experiment. but feel like it can evolve. Like, you get with a certain bunch of cats, and just let it go, let it grow. I haven’t been able to do that. I’m just going to work and trying to adapt to what’s there already, instead of going in and playing the way I feel.

The trouble is today, everybody’s so depressed that you have to be feeling better than they do, in order to make them feel better. You’ve got to be really together, to be into that. I was on a health kick for a time; I wasn’t drinking or anything. I was really feeling good, you know.

I was never a big band player until I joined Woody’s band. The first gig I had was with the Mangione Brothers band—Chuck and Gap. That was a good band; Roy McCurdy and Jimmy Garrison were on it. I was twenty years old, I did that for two years, and that was the best gig I’ve ever had. Now, I dig big bands but it’s not what I really wanted to do at the time. As a young musician, the road sounds like a lot of fun, and all that—but for me it proved to be a detour. My real intention was to get with a small band, stay there, and develop my playing. I feel like I’ve been biding my time for the last ten years.

I’m on my way to doing something now; I don’t even know what it is, but on occasions like the other night I get reminded that as long as it’s swinging it doesn’t really matter. But it’s not the kind of swing that is limited.

As far as thinking about the public, you should be conscious of them as some kind of presence, an intellect, but they’re actually with you. The best way to think of the audience is as part of the band, but they’re not playing at that time. It may sound corny, but the whole thing should be like a family. You’re just trying to raise everything to a level of happiness. And when you create that real warm feeling, you get a feedback.

Communicating is the only important thing to do. I guess I’ve become conscious of this since I’ve been hanging out with kids that dug rock. I’m not saying that rock is more honest or anything, but I used to dig rhythm’n’blues, and there’s something about what they’re saying as far as pure enjoyment through the senses, instead of sitting down—and taking it as a purely intellectual exercise. You shouldn’t have to force yourself to do anything; people should be drawn in by something other than the mathematics of the music. I don’t even know if you can just say it’s the pulse; it’s that momentum, that extra thing that makes people dig it. That’s what jazz was all about.

The really big mistake that jazz players make is to limit themselves. If you have a band, when the cats really know each other’s playing, you don’t think about whether it’s rock,

jazz or whatever.\You just call a tune that expresses what you want to express at the time—and usually it’s the same thing the people want to hear. Labelling is bad, because instead of being inner-directed, you’re being directed from outside to put out a certain set thing. It’s bad to think of yourself as a particular type of player, having to remember how you play all the time: it’s like a circle that closes in on itself. What you should do is just play, let your insides tell you what’s happening, and if it’s really honest, if you’re in a healthy physical and mental condition, I believe the people will respond. When they don’t respond is when you’re attempting something unreal, trying to contrive what they want, thinking of them as all-important. They are all-important, but they came to hear you play you.

However, the problem is that the musician is not allowed to do that today—unless you’re already accepted. If people accept you as an artist per se, then they’re going to accept anything you do. You’re free to be free. So you have that feeling that nobody’s going to be listening to you negatively, judging you harshly, to the point where you have to prove something. But if you’re playing under that kind of pressure, it’s just not going to happen. That’s why the best players are cats that really don’t care. I mean, they care, but they don’t let it dictate to them, you know. People that are in positions of being accepted no matter what they do—they make better art, because they have a positive idea of themselves. The answer is: you have to maintain that self-respect; you have to have faith that you can play. And even during the periods when it’s not accepted, you just go straight ahead.

I know I was to the point with Woody where I was accepted. That wasn’t really what I wanted to do, but people seemed to really dig that more. Sure, it was fun, but it was a compromise, because it was a big band, and rhythm sections are not as sensitive on big bands as they are in small bands. You don’t get that real sense of telling a story, the way you do in a small group. There you have a chance to stretch out, you get that interplay, where you leave spaces, and the piano player’s comping for you, and all this. When everybody’s really sensitive to what you’re doing, you can lose yourself and let it flow, without attempting to do anything in a short span of time.

On a big band, you have to condense everything, you have to open up burning, and usually it’s a more superficial level of soloing. You go more for effects than substance. There’s substance there, but it’s not like having the chance to play until you’re finished.

Like, on Woody’s band, lots of times I never knew how long I had. That way, you can’t pace yourself.

You should know that you’re going to have as long as you want, or that you’ve got to do it right away. and get off. I’ve lost my fluency from big bands, in a way—that facility of stretching out and really getting to my gut level. But I’m starting to get it back—that natural rhythm of space and music. Although that’s all changed now, that’s the way I still like to play. I guess you could call it old-fashioned.

When something is good, you can’t call it old-fashioned. Kenny Dorham never sounded old-fashioned to me, but he wasn’t playing like Freddie Hubbard; he was playing Kenny Dorham, and it was as hip as anything else.

Today the rhythm section has changed around. The comping has so much more energy, the feelings are so intense, that it’s not as controlled as it was. Before, you were just focusing on the linear development of the soloist, and you would get into the story. Now it’s the overall mood that people are affected by, The people go into a club now to be enveloped by the sound, since this electronic thing came in. It’s almost like going back to the womb.

For myself, I dig acoustical instruments, because that’s where the saxophone is. The way I want to play the instrument, I like to get the quality of the sound. Maybe I haven’t got into the Varitone, maybe I will like it, but right now I still enjoy playing this way and, if I’m getting my sound, going for quality. I identify with that, it’s plugged into me, and then I can tell my story. With the volume and everything today, I have to get a mouthpiece that is well out, but I’m sacrificing quality for that. So it’s another kind of playing.

It’s a question of the overall effect of what I’m doing—does it fit in with the background, with the sound that’s already going down? In previous small group playing, the soloist would set the tone, and everybody else would complement and camp for you. Now, it’s the tune that’s all-important, and when you play you adhere to that, more or less. I kinda prefer the old thing, but I think the best music is that which has both approaches going.

The result of this volume envelopment on the listeners: when they go in and hear an acoustical band, I don’t care how intense it is rhythmically, they don’t think it is. They’re not listening that closely, and they’re not that conscious of what rhythmic intensity is, even if it’s soft. I’ve seen them get bored. It seems like they don’t respond unless it’s loud—that kind of excitement as opposed to rhythmic excitement.

Ballads, standards or just a swinging, straight-ahead blues, up-tempo or medium tempo; if I get into some linear thing and there’s a give-and-take with the rhythm section, to me that’s jazz. And the people can still be attuned to that, when it’s really happening. Because Sonny Rollins is still doing that; he’s exciting, and people come in to hear that. I think everything else is a transition; that’s the nugget—swinging and the communication that way. But it can be done with the newer harmonies and all that.

When I think about my favourite players—Joe Romano has always been one of them. We’ve known each other for years. He’s actually a tenor player, Joe, and we used to do a lot of playing in up-state New York, with good rhythm sections. And that’s the kind of feeling I’m talking about; the people just loved it. You get in there, and when the group is cooking, you can be between sets and you still feel a great warmth from the people in the room. That’s what I miss a lot—that can be the most exciting thing in the world.

 Copyright © 1965, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.