Nobody swings like Sammy Nestico. The 87-year-old arranger knows how to get the heel of your foot bouncing and hands clapping without you even realizing they're moving. It just sort of happens, especially if you dig big bands. Sammy is old school, so his swingers build and build and build. The whole point, Sammy says, is to drive the listener wild, and Sammy always succeeds. Between 1968 and 1983, he was the pen on 10 Count Basie albums, four of which won Grammys. I just received his latest release, Fun Time and More Live: Sammy Nestico and the SWR Big Band. It's so good I was moved to give Sammy a call last evening. More with Sammy in a moment.
I first discovered Sammy in the mid-1970s, when my high school big band ordered a package of arrangements from Sammy's company. Back then, Sammy always included a black floppy vinyl record with a pro band playing the songs, so you could hear how they were supposed to sound. I still have the disc. Sammy has published 600 tunes and thousands of arrangements, and the chart craftsmanship on his new live album is remarkable.
Fun Time and More is a concert reading of compositions that Sammy and Germany's SWR Big Band recorded in the studio over the past few years. Surprisingly, the band takes each song at a perfect pace. Which is unusual for a live album. As you know, live recordings tend to be rushed, often due to stage nerves, and they lose something in the process. Not so here. This live album is as cool as can be. I only wish I could hear the SWR Big Band playing Sammy's arrangements at New York's Village Vanguard, Birdland or the Blue Note.
Speaking with Sammy by phone is like talking to the Santa Claus of jazz. Sammy is so full of life and laughter—and his passion for swinging hard knows no bounds:
"You like the album? I'm so glad. I haven't even heard it yet. I'm recording another one soon at the Capitol Tower in Hollywood with my favorite studio musicians. The arrangements will be all standards. I have 10 of them done. I just need two more, and we'll be ready to go.
"On Fun Time and More, I think my favorite tune is Blue Samuel. I took the chord changes from Frank Rosolino's Blue Daniel, like Dizzy [Gillespie] used to do basing new songs on the chord changes of older ones. The chords on my tune are nice and the progression is real good, don't you think?
"I also like my arrangement of Johnny Mandel's Not Really the Blues, which he wrote originally for Woody Herman. I first took on that tune back in 1993, when trombonist Bill Watrous was recording an album of Johnny Mandel songs. Johnny had sent me the lead sheet, and I loved every bar of it. The energy just won't quit. I redid my arrangement of his song for the SWR Big Band, and it came out great.
"Whenever I write a tune and arrange it, I first sit in my home and work out both on my piano. After, I record myself playing it on the piano and load the result onto my iPod. Then when I take my walk each day around the circle in our neighborhood, I fine-tune the song here and there. I call the process 'surgery.' "
When I let Johnny Mandel know about Sammy's new album over the weekend and how he reworked Not Really the Blues, Johnny was excited but not surprised that Sammy had done a masterful job: "Of course he did. He's one of us." [Photo of Johnny Mandel by Marc Myers]
JazzWax tracks: You can sample Fun Time and More Live: Sammy Nestico and the SWR Big Band at iTunes and here.
JazzWax note: For my two-part interview with Sammy, go here.
JaxzzWax clip: Here's the SWR Big Band in 2009 playing Blue Samuel...
And here's Sammy's studio version of Johnny Mandel's Not Really the Blues.