Monday, January 15, 2018

The Sal Nistico Quartet Live at Carmelo's 1981

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Coming of age as a working Jazz drummer in the late 1950s, I was very fortunate to live in the eastern San Fernando Valley, an area north of the city of Los Angeles with the largest population in Los Angeles county.

My home was a short drive away from Warner Brothers and Universal Studios via surface streets and a short drive away via freeway from the recording studios and Jazz clubs in Hollywood including Jazz City, Shelly’s Manne Hole and the It club.

Because of these proximities, the San Fernando Valley became a haven for working studio musicians who played Jazz at night and the area soon developed its own Jazz clubs such as The Baked Potato on Cahuenga Blvd, Donte’s on Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood, La Vie Lee, The Times and a host of other small clubs on Ventura Blvd [the portion of Route 66 that comes into Los Angeles] and King Arthur’s in Canoga Park [aka the West Valley].

One of my favorites was Carmelo’s which was located “in the heart of the Valley” on Van Nuys Blvd. and few blocks north of Ventura Blvd. I was particularly fond of it because the Bob Florence Big Band played there quite often.

This trip down memory lane was sparked by the recent release by Jordi Pujol and his fine team at Fresh Sounds Records of a double CD entitled Sal Nistico Quartet Live at Carmelo’s 1981 [FSR -CD -941] on which the tenor saxophonist is joined by pianist Frank Strazzeri, bassist Frank De La Rosa and drummer John Dentz.

Jordi Pujol wrote his usual insightful and informative insert notes to accompany the thirteen [13] tracks of music on this two disc set and we thought we’d present them to you “as is” because we could hardly improve on them.

About Carmelo's

Carmelo Piscitello opened his restaurant Carmelo's around 1960. He was a former barber, and accordionist, who envisioned having the best Italian food in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles. It was a neighborhood restaurant, until in June 1979, Carmelo's brother Chuck — a professional musician described by disc jockey Chuck Niles as "a swinging little bebop drummer"— persuaded him to start offering jazz. The club was intimate, seating no more than a hundred patrons; it operated seven nights a week, and soon became popular. Chuck Piscitello booked the acts with name performers such as saxophonist Stan Getz, Harry Edison, Bob Brookmeyer, Don Menza, Terry Gibbs, blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon, singer Carmen McRae, the big bands of Louis Bellson, Bob Florence, Bill Berry, and jazz organist Jimmy Smith. In June 1982, the brothers acquired the space adjoining their restaurant, and by knocking out a wall they were able to double their audience. Don Menza — one of the regular name performers of the original Carmelo's — recalls: "The jazz club was enlarged (unfortunately) and lost the real intimacy of a true jazz club."

In September 1983, after Chuck Piscitello died of a heart condition, the club entered a phase of decline, and almost closed due to disagreements between the Piscitello family, and various technical difficulties that led to serious delays and financial problems. It was then, that Ruth and Del Hoover bought the club. Previously the Hoovers also operated a smaller nitery, Stevie G's, in nearby Studio City. For two years they tried to keep Carmelo's jazz policy, but business was slow. And Ruth said she found the financial odds were against her. "The trouble is, so many of the performers charge such high fees," she said. "We just can't afford to book them in a relatively small room." The opinion of Don Menza disregards what Ruth said: "I don't know what Ruth was talking about paying us too much. We got basic low pay and we all did it."

The scarcity of financial resources put Carmelo's, a popular jazz club for almost six years and a restaurant for more than 20, on the verge of extinction. In March 1985, "out of the blue" the Hoovers sold the club to the veteran singer and businessman Herb Jeffries. The local jazz community expected Jeffries would be able to return the Sherman Oaks club to its halcyon days as one of the most popular restaurants and clubs that featured jazz in the San Fernando Valley.

However, the expectations that jazz fans had were truncated when, a few months later, in 1986, Jeffries changed the name of the club to Flamingo Music Center. "We don't want to be known as a jazz club. Sure we have jazz," he said, "but we've had rock bands in here; pop; Steve Allen, who does comedy, and opera on Sunday nights." Carey Leverette, owner of North Hollywood's Donte's (for almost two decades perhaps the Valley's premier jazz club), conceded that Jeffries' switch to varied musical entertainment was a sign of the times.

"He's not the only one. Everybody else is doing it," Leverette said. "If it works for him, good for him. I'm sorry to see that jazz is not the premier commodity that it really is in the eyes of the public. When you can get a guy like Prince making $18 million a year and some of the greatest jazz players can't even get a gig — something's wrong there."

Don Menza pointed out how he felt after the club's expansion "I played a few times in the bigger club and it never felt the same. Chuck died shortly after the enlargement, and that was really the end of the jazz community helping out. We did not support the "show biz" part of Ruth or Jeffries' idea of jazz. There were a few who did, but in general the real players felt that Chuck had been betrayed. It was a bad time for all who loved Chuck. The end of an era — too bad."

About Sal Nistico

Tenor saxophonist Sal Nistico is mostly remembered for his years as one of the main soloists in Woody Herman's band. The fact is, more outstanding tenor saxophone soloists have roamed with the Herds of Woody Herman than with perhaps any other band in jazz. Among those great names who have worked or recorded with the band were Allen Eager, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Ben Webster, Paul Gonsalves, Al Cohn, Flip Phillips, Jimmy Giuffre, Phil Urso, Richie Kamuca, Bill Perkins, Gene Ammons, Jerry Coker, Don Lanphere, and our man: Sal Nistico.

He was born on April 2, 1938, in Syracuse, N.Y. He had an early inclination for jazz. "There used to be a lot of records around the house", he said, "and I listened to a lot of them and always wanted to play something. So, in grade school, I asked them for a trumpet. They said they had enough trumpet players and handed me an old beat-up alto. So I tried to learn to play that. They didn't think I was going to be able to play anything, though. They didn't see any promise whatsoever."

Some years later, Sal began listening to Jazz at the Philharmonic records and developed a liking for Illinois Jacquet and Charlie Parker, His first time playing jazz was with a high school combo, and reflected his listening preferences. "We played things like Anthropology at school dances," he said.

"I was playing alto at the time. I picked up the tenor at 16 and dug it immediately.

So, I went out on the road—playing with anybody I could, from rhythm and blues to strictly entertainment-type groups." At 19, his prior acquaintance with trumpeter Chuck and pianist Gap Mangione in Rochester, N.Y. led to his joining the Jazz Brothers, then a sextet, on tenor. "Up until then," Sal pointed out, "I couldn't play much more than blues, but Chuck and Gap were into all kinds of things— like  Serpent's   Tooth—and  I'd  listen. Later, I sat in with them and was hired."

He was a member of the Mangione Brothers for a couple of years. "The Brothers kept growing," Nistico recalled. "We had a chance to play every night and were really into it. Looking back on it, it really was a high point. Then, in 1962, I got the call to go out with Woody Herman. The band caught fire at the Metropole in New York and things started to happen from there." He joined that 1962 edition of the Herd which was deservedly a much-heralded outfit. The Herman "renaissance" led to Grammy awards and Woody was named one of Down Beat's jazzmen ol the year in 1963.

Nistico had what would be probably the longest tenure of any Herman tenorman, playing until 1971, even though his association with the band was not continuous — he had two stints with Count Basie (in 1964 and 1967) and a European sojourn with a small group in 1965 and 1966. But for most of the 60's, Nistico experienced the rewards of being a featured soloist with one of the most important jazz bands. Also, he experienced the frustrations and limitations of an improviser in a big band context.

He left Herman in the fall of 1971 to become a freelance soloist. In 1972 he joined the Slide Hampton orchestra that travelled to Italy in January. For a few years he played and recorded both in America and Europe with a variety of groups and orchestras led by Lionel Hampton, Buddy Rich, Buck Clayton, Francy Boland, Barone-Burghardt, Benny Bailey, Curtis Fuller, among others; he also recorded as a leader for the German label Ego. And although his career never really got off the ground, Nistico was always a player to reckon with.

In the summer of 1978, after spending almost three years in Europe, he returned to the US scene in top form, recording an excellent sextet album for the Chicago label Bee Hive.

In January 1981 he arrived in Los Angeles, where he would become a regular of the local jazz circuit in a short few months. There he met some old friends from his Rochester days, like Don Menza and Frank Strazzeri. In those days, Carmelo's in Sherman Oaks was one of the most popular Italian restaurants and jazz clubs on the Los Angeles scene. It was owned by the brothers Carmelo and Chuck Piscitello, and Menza and Strazzeri used to play there regularly.

Chuck, the younger brother, was in charge of hiring the bands. Trumpeter Bobby Shew, who also used to play at Carmelo's, recalls that "Chuck was also a pretty decent drummer but didn't get many opportunities to play, sadly."

When Chuck learned that Nistico was in town, he hired him to play at the club in January 22, 1981. For the date, Sal put together an ideal supportive rhythm team made up of the energetic driving piano of Frank Strazzeri, with bassist Frank De La Rosa, and drummer John Dentz.

Nistico's main influences were mainly in the straight-ahead bebop tradition mainly, but he also developed a great admiration for the early Sonny Rollins. As he pointed out, "Sonny Rollins has given me more pleasure than any musician alive. He's got a swing and swing's a medicine. If you're sick, it'll make you feel better — I firmly believe that." He makes his roots clear in these live recordings, with a redoubtable spirit, no tricks and few concessions to more modern stylings, a demeanor that surely added to his reputation a musical heavyweight among his peers. And the quartet setting allowed him the space to play inspiring, emotionally-charged music — qualities to which the at-home ambiance of Carmelo's was very conducive.

He's playing was a pure joy — blisteringly hot and imaginative at up-tempos, and equally eloquent and compelling on mid-tempos and ballads. To start the first set, Nistico picked up a buoyant up-tempo new composition titled Backlog, which he wrote for this gig. After stating the theme in unison with the piano Sal was off and flying with stunning fluidity, injecting emotional intensity and depth into the music, racing over the straight-time walking bass figures of Frank De la Rosa, the stunning fluency of Strazzeri and the restrained power of John Dentz. His solo on Lester Leaps In is a superlative, flawless, swinging, Lester-guided tenor, harmonically rich and rhythmically loose, a string of inventive, winding choruses in logical succession.

On How Deep Is the Ocean he projects his powerful rhythmic attack, and the choruses that tumble out with exuberant, driving lyricism and a limitless supply of inventive energy. A sign that Nistico was a gifted musician was his ability to infuse an old Dixieland evergreen like Sweet Georgia Brown with new vitality, startling twists of perspective, and fresh emotional zing.

He also demonstrates an obvious affinity for a standard like You Stepped Out of a Dream, making it sound as fresh and vibrant as new tune. His invigorating solo is surging and full-bodied, played at a feverish pace, never letting up and moving continually into new areas of exploration. On Equinox. Sal did inject mild Coltrane-sounding tonal nuances into his playing, and they added an extra spice to a demanding performance. Strazzeri gave an excellent and moving solo. Bass and drums play with confidence, especially Dentz, who was outstanding in catching the melody and molding rhythms for it.

Frank Strazzeri, as had happened with Nistico, was a pianist who obtained the recognition of his professional colleagues, rather than the jazz fans. Strazzeri, was a devoted jazz musician who gathered his various influences, among them Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Carl Perkins, and Hank Jones, into an exciting, cliche-free, readily identifiable personal expression. His improvised lines were consistently exciting, inventive and uncluttered, and delivered with a crisp, bright sound in medium and fast tempos. It's worth paying attention to Frank Strazzeri's solo piano rendition of Johnny Mandel's ballad Close Enough for Love, staying respectfully close to the melody, infusing it with charm and feeling with a delicate, controlled touch.

Strazzeri was a fine and prolific composer as well, and Opals was one of his memorable compositions. A melodically meaningful tune, on which Nistico emerges as a more thoughtful and lyrical soloist. This melodic quality is accentuated by his warm roundish sound. That aspect of Nistico is also heard on the groovy bossa nova Pensativa, where his approach is a relaxed, whimsical exploration of the melody, but with a highly lyrical feeling.

Chuck Piscitello, "II Padrone" as Sal announces him at the end of the tune, sat on the drums for Dentz in Hank Mobley's Funk in a Deep Freeze, a mellow neo-bop tune, delivered by the tenor with tempered energy and mature musicality. There is also a palpable feeling of joy in the whole improvisatory process of Strazzeri's solo, proving him to be a consistent source of inspired playing.

On Cedar Walton's Bolivia, Nistico displays imaginative variations from the tune's prime melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements with commanding authority

Although the vigorous tenor of Sal Nistico is the dominant, leading force throughout, Frank Strazzeri infuses the set with his amazing grasp of harmony, and the two principal aspects of his style: single note line passages alternating with contrasted sequences in chords. Nevertheless, his rather depressive personality, and lack of recognition sometimes made him underestimate his own talent, an opinion not shared by those who had the opportunity to be on stage with him, including Art Pepper, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Frank Rosolino, Terry Gibbs, Don Menza, Bill Perkins, or Bobby Shew, among many others. The latter talked enthusiastically about Strazzeri: "a giant, a master, an incredibly underrated player, a complete genius."

This gig at Carmelo's was a totally enjoyable musical event. You can hear it in the warm response of the audience. All the jazz fans who have overlooked Sal Nistico (1938-1991) — perhaps because so many great tenor soloists came out of his generation — these previously unreleased recordings are sure to be an eye-opener, pleasing old fans, and reaching younger listeners who will appreciate his powerful sound and style.”

  • Jordi Pujol

Recorded on stage by Don Menza
Mastered by Pieter De Wagter
Produced for CD release by Jordi Pujol
C & ®2017 by Fresh Sound Records

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