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SAL NISTICO is a wonderful yet relatively unknown tenor saxophone player. He spent a number of years with the big bands of Woody Herman, Count Basie and Buddy Rich. In his early twenties, he recorded with such notables as Barry Harris, Nat Adderly and Sam Jones in small bop groups.

Stylistically, Sal comes from Charlie Parker and plays bop lines with a bit of a shuffle feel reminiscent of the great piano player Wynton Kelly. He also has a touch of Gene Ammons (tenor) in his playing and a way of precisely nailing the time a la Johnny Griffin (tenor).

During the summer of 1966, I was working a five-night a week show at the Club Alamo next to Bakers Keyboard Lounge, a world-renowned jazz room in Detroit. Bob Pierson (tenor) was the leader on that gig and he had met Sal when they were both on Woody’s band years earlier. Woody’s band came through Detroit that summer and Bob invited Sal to sit in. Kirt Lightsey was on piano and I was playing drums. I recorded that evening and on the link below is the tune Tenor Madness. I believe this is the only recording where Sal had no restraints. He stretched out for 37 killer choruses of blues.

Click on the forward arrow to hear "Tenor Madness" sound clip:

I own the following four albums that featured Sal and I will give you thumbnail reviews of each. They were all recorded between 1962 and 1965 when Sal was in his early to mid 20s, a great musical period for him. He was truly a young lion.

1. “Encore” Woodie Herman, a big band featuring Sal. Generally I’m not a fan of big bands but I must say that this vintage of Woody (1963) was outstanding. I heard the band live several times at the Minor Key in Detroit. All the sections were squeaky clean, precise and very swinging. A high percentage of individuals in the band were players, not just readers. Sal soared over the top of this band and there are some very exciting moments.

2. ”It’s time we met” Terry Gibbs, was recorded in 1965 and reissued on Mainstream/6048. If you want to hear the jazz style of swing, this album is for you. A good part of the swing feel is provided by the guitar player who played “rhythm guitar” (a chord on every quarter note). The mix of styles reminds me of what happened often in the 40s, i.e., a bebop player being backed by swing players. It worked then and it works on this date. A number of the musicians in this sextet were members of Woody’s band and Terry Gibbs (vibes) was the leader. Sal sounds very comfortable with his friends and he is clearly the star of the album.

The next 2 albums were recorded in the early 1960s. Rumor has it that Cannonball Adderley (alto) took a liking to Sal and had a hand in the production of these projects. Both albums feature Cannonball’s brother Nat on trumpet.

3. “Comin’ On Up” Sal Nistico Quintet

4. “Heavy Weights” Sal Nistico

All the musicians on these two albums are playing bop, not swing. Both albums feature Barry Harris, one of a stable of great Detroit bop piano players. The two albums are similar musically and Sal sounds great on both, but for me, “Comin’ On Up” has the edge. This is largely because of Barry’s solo on the tune, “Comin’ On Up”, based on the chord changes of Cherokee, a jazz standard. Barry’s solo is the best bop piano solo I’ve ever heard on this tune.

If you like Sal, choose from these four or check online for his subsequent projects.

To see Sal in big band settings, go to YouTube.com.

-- Tom Brown

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