© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“ … Sam's playing … embodies his extension of the style that runs from Dizzy Gillespie to Fats Navarro through Clifford Brown. Of all the major trumpet soloists at work today who come out of Clifford, Noto is spiritually and technically most faithful to the source. His production of notes … shows a thorough understanding of Brownie's artistry. Too much, of course, can be made of artistic lineage; no one really plays like anyone else. … Sam's allegiance to the Brown style is important to his conception. But he is too forthright an individual to allow his personality to be submerged beneath even the oceanic influence of Brown.”
- Doug Ramsey, Jazz author, critic and blogger
From 1975 - 1980, the brilliant Jazz trumpet player, Sam Noto, made four LPs for Don Schlitten’s Xanadu record label none of which have made it into broader, digital circulation.
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it would be fun to highlight Sam and his Xanadu recordings in four, separate postings before combining these into one, comprehensive feature about Sam and the other recordings he played on for Xanadu as a sideman during this period, most notably on one in which he teamed up with bebop trumpet legend, Red Rodney.
Not only are Jazz fans indebted to Don for recording Sam at the peak of his career but also for turning to four knowledgeable Jazz authors to prepare the liner notes to these LPs each of which provide a wealth of information about Sam’s background, his style of playing, the musicians on the various dates and the song selections.
Recorded on December 18, 1977, Sam Noto/Notes to You [Xanadu 144] features Sam along with Joe Romano, tenor sax, Ronnie Cuber, baritone sax, Jimmy Rowles on piano, Sam Jones on bass and Freddie Waits on drums with the following liner notes by Doug Ramsey.
“It was late Spring or early Summer, 1957, and Stan Kenton was playing a dance at the Washington Armory. The band may not have been Kenton's best, but it was by no means his worst. Lennie Niehaus was the featured alto saxophone soloist. Bill Perkins got most of the tenor solos. Red Kelly was the bassist. The trumpet section included two players I thought showed promise as soloists. One was Lee Katzman, who dropped out of sight after the 1950s. The other was Sam Noto. None of the trumpeters got much in the way of solo time from Kenton, he kept them so busy blowing high and loud. But lead trumpeter Noto showed more than power in his scattered few bars of improvisation. He had imagination.
The few of us who had come to listen were grouped at the edge of the dance floor, and I remember one of our number remarking that it would be interesting to hear Noto stretch out in solo. None of us dreamed it would be nearly two decades before that opportunity materialized.
Note's Kenton experience lasted from 1953 to 1960, but for most of that time, he recalls, "there was precious little solo space."
"Near the end, I started to get a lot to play, but it took a long time," he says. "By then Stan had put me on first trumpet and it was kind of hard to keep my jazz chops together, and play that book. It's a different kind of thing. When you play first trumpet, you have to put your air in differently, because you're aiming for projection. When you play jazz, you have to kind of bubble your air in to get the proper inflections. It was hurting me; I wanted to be a jazz player and he was making a first trumpet player out of me. That's why I never went back on the band."
Looking back on the lead experience with Kenton, Noto today realizes its value. It made a professional reputation that helped him land lucrative lead jobs in Las Vegas, where until the mid-seventies he worked in show bands. And the ability developed in the pressure cooker brass section of the Kenton band has made it possible for him to secure more or less steady studio employment in Toronto. Now he uses the Canadian city as a base of operations for his beloved jazz work. It isn't fair, it isn't right, that a creative artist of Noto's rank should have to record jingles and other schlock to subsidize his first love. But it is more fair, more right, than starving.
Starving is what he says he did after leaving Kenton and returning to his native Buffalo.
"After a couple of years of hard times, I got myself together jazz-wise. I began to be able to play the way I had wanted to during the Kenton years."
That meant developing his improvisatory technique. An important component of that was the business of bubbling the air into his horn. Other trumpet players, notably Clifford Brown, have used it, but it is as difficult to explain as it is to master.
"I get four or five calls a week from students at the Humber College music school in Toronto asking how I do it. If I could only get an answer together, I could probably make a good living teaching. I just keep the air going, but I interrupt it, sometimes with the tongue, sometimes without it, but it sounds like I'm tonguing all the time. I picked it up from just listening to Clifford. He sometimes tongued, sometimes slurred, but he kept that air going. He did it in such a way that it became a virtuoso style of playing. It's hard to explain, and you don't do it by thinking about it too much. And you can't really tell how I do it by watching. Trumpet players from the school come down all the time and watch closely, but they still ask how I do it."
After the years of getting his style and technique together in Buffalo, Noto went on the road with Count Basie for five months in 1964 and three months in 1965. He found that big band experience considerably different from the one with Kenton. He was featured in solo on only a couple of pieces. But he says he learned something about the Basie men's approach to playing that proved a valuable lesson.
"When I first got on the band, I was sticking out like a sore thumb," he says. "Those cats play differently. They lay back. They play with the time more. A whole section will be in a different time slot than another section. But it all comes out. It's much more relaxed than Kenton. At first with Basie I was playing right on top of the beat, but after a few nights I began to get the hang of it. I really enjoyed it. With Basie, if it doesn't swing, it doesn't mean anything. With Stan, everything was more concerned with harmonic style."
When he left Basie, times were rough in Buffalo, and Sam moved to Las Vegas for several years of financially rewarding but artistically barren activity in the pits of the Strip's show hotels. There were a few Musicians Union trust fund concerts in which Noto and other jazz players attracted by Vegas' plentiful money could express themselves. Otherwise, jam sessions provided the only creative outlet.
"Playing in people's' garages after the gig, that was the only way we kept our sanity."
Among his companions at many of those after-hour sessions was Gus Mancuso, another talented upstate New Yorker who is equally accomplished on piano, vibes, bass, and baritone horn and who has been all but buried in the Las Vegas scene for two decades. The Mangione brothers, Sal Nistico, J. R. Monterose, Don Menza, Frank Strazzeri, and Joe Romano are among the upstaters who developed in the fifties and sixties and who share an indefinable but unmistakable stylistic bond.
"It sure has a certain kind of feel about it," Sam agrees. "Some people in L.A., without even knowing where we're from, can hear us play and know we're from that area. Some Upstate Italian thing, I guess."
Romano and Noto have been doing their Upstate Italian thing together off and on since the early 1950s when Sam was working at a Buffalo club called Boffo's. Romano visited from Rochester one night and sat in.
"I was impressed with Joe's playing that night, always have been. Through the years, we've been associated. When I had my own club in Buffalo, he worked with me."
Joe was a Woody Herman mainstay in the 1950s, recording outside the band occasionally, including a 1957 date with Gus Mancuso that was memorable for Joe's Sonny Rollins-inspired solos as well as Gus's robust baritone horn work. He still likes early Sonny, as you can plainly hear, but what was an almost overwhelming influence 20 years ago has been tempered by Joe's development, and to some extent by the saxophone changes of the Coltrane era. More of the fruits of the Noto/Romano relationship may be heard on Sam's second Xanadu album. Act One (X 127). Sam's first album for Xanadu is called Entrance! (X 103). He can also be heard along with Dexter Cordon, Al Cohn, Blue Mitchell, Barry Harris, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes on True Blue (X 136) and Silver Blue (X 137).
This was the first time Noto had played with Jimmy Rowles, the unclassifiable piano giant from Spokane. Rowles has accompanied virtually every major jazz artist of the modern era, and each of them has been almost unreasonably lavish in his or her praise of Jimmy's sensitivity, inventiveness, humor, and encyclopedic knowledge of tunes. It is quite likely that Rowles knows more changes to more songs than anyone else. He is a major soloist. It strikes me that his solo on Parley is an out and out masterpiece of jazz improvisation, logical, lyrical, constructed with the fluidity of thought and emotion that can be achieved only by a great artist. Producer Don Schlitten notes that "a number of so-called hip musicologists did a double take when they found out that Rowles was in the band, but as you can hear, Rowles is a giant and belongs everywhere."
Sam was thrilled with Jimmy's contribution.
"He was dancin' back there," he says. "He loosened me up. He plays a little less than other piano players. In fact, he's one of the last of the good compers. He comps lightly and in short spurts, where some guys will lay on a chord and force you into a corner with it. And studio playing is something else, you know; he was about 15 yards away from me. But, as I say, he was dancin', giving me those nice little pops to keep me going." Jimmy can also be heard in duel form with Al Cohn on Heavy Love (X 1451).
Sam Jones, one of the busiest and most respected bassists in New York, works frequently these days in clubs and on tour with Cedar Wallon. He is featured on many Xanadu albums and on his own as leader on Cello Again (X 129). He continues the Oscar Pettiford tradition of bass playing, but has long since established his reputation as a major force on his instrument.
Waits' credentials can be quickly established by listing a few of the artists he has worked with: Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, Ella Fitzgerald, Kenny Dorham, McCoy Tyner, Carmen McRae, Lee Morgan, Mercer Ellington, Stan Getz, James Moody, Milt Jackson, Nancy Wilson, not to mention Captain Kangaroo. The range of abilities implied by that variety of performer speaks for itself. So does his drumming on this session, as well as on The Inimitable Teddy Edwards (X 134).
Ronnie Cuber's first jazz experience was in the legendary Newport Youth Band led by Marshall Brown in the 1950s. From there he went to Maynard Ferguson's incendiary early sixties organization. But, for most listeners, he became a major baritone factor when he worked with the exciting small band led by guitarist George Benson in 1966 and 1967. His sound is large, but incisive. He is a solid anchorman in a sax section, and a soloist who demands attention for his swaggeringly confident improvisations. Cuber's ferocious work on Parley is among his best on record. His own album is Cuber Libre (X 135).
As for Sam's playing, it embodies his extension of the style that runs from Dizzy Gillespie to Fats Navarro through Clifford Brown. Of all the major trumpet soloists at work today who come out of Clifford, Noto is spiritually and technically most faithful to the source. His production of notes, alluded to above in his discussion of technique, shows a thorough understanding of Brownie's artistry. Too much, of course, can be made of artistic lineage; no one really plays like anyone else. Paul Quinichette, for an example, is the most faithful of Lester Young's disciples, but the experienced listener can quickly pinpoint Quinichette's touches. Sam's allegiance to the Brown style is important to his conception. But he is too forthright an individual to allow his personality to be submerged beneath even the oceanic influence of Brown. Listen to his entry on 'Round Midnight, and his controlled lyricism in the first four bars of the melody. No mistaking that for any other trumpet player. His speed and control are much like Clifford's, but his fast work on Notes To You makes it clear that his way of handling those flurries of 16th notes is his own. Brownie was inclined to play uninterrupted strings of 16ths, sometimes to the point of boredom, one of the few legitimate criticisms of his work. Noto alternates the fast passages with stretches of longer notes, imparting a distinctive variety to his solos.
This album also represents Sam Noto the composer. All of his originals here are originals in the true sense. There is one exception. Notes To You is based on the changes of I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire, of all things.
"All the bebop guys used to put new lines to old changes," Sam explains. "We were messing around with those changes one day, and that's what I came up with. But lately all my tunes have had original changes."
Quasinoto and Conclusions were written in Toronto in 1976. Cross Chris and Parley dale back to the early sixties and Noto's Buffalo hiatus.
"Cross Chris was named after my son. He was a hyperkinetic little boy, and he was always angry. Now he's 17, and he's still angry. So it's a turnaround on 'criss-cross' but it has no musical relationship to the Thelonious Monk tune named Criss Cross,"
Quasinoto was one of Sam's nicknames in Las Vegas. "Notes" was another, hence Notes To You, a song and album title definitely not to be taken as an insult.
Sam is moderately pleased with his playing here. Pressed to assign it a value on a scale of one to ten, the perfectionist Noto gives it a 6. He says he has achieved 8 a few times, and is still working for 10. Based on the perfection of his playing on this album, we must conclude that if 10 is achievable, it will be a staggering experience to hear Sam when he gets there.
With three Xanadu albums under his leadership, Sam's Notoriety is growing. After years of solid development, he is being recognized as a major jazz artist. It is gratifying to watch...and hear...his success.”
Notes: DOUG RAMSEY
Cover Photo: DON SCHLITTEN
Recording: PAUL GOODMAN
Produced and Directed: DON SCHLITTEN