Sammy Nestico (1924-2021) passed away on Sunday morning at the age of 96. Four bandleaders and arrangers pay tribute to one of the best-known (and most frequently-played) big band arrangers:
Sammy Nestico in 2006. Photo by Jack Braden/USAF/Public Domain
Denny Ilett: By 1967 one could be forgiven for thinking that the art of scoring for an organisation such as Count Basie’s had all been done, a well-worn path. But, despite following in the footsteps of Neal Hefti, Ernie Wilkins, Frank Foster and Thad Jones, along came Sammy Nestico and provided the band with a fresh take on a tried-and-tested theme; one that would have him contributing to the Count’s library for the next 15 years, setting him on the road to greatness.
At a time when big bands and their arrangers were increasingly pushing the rhythmic, harmonic and sonic barriers, one thinks of the work of Don Ellis for example, Sammy’s writing doggedly stayed firmly in the tradition that had cemented Basie’s reputation as the swinging-est big band of them all since the mid-1930’s. In order to write for the band Nestico said, first and foremost, he had to learn how to edit. He found himself spending as much time with an eraser as he did with a pen; lessons that he never forgot or felt the need to waver from. Nestico learned quickly what the men in the ranks wanted to play and what the Boss wanted to hear. Within a short time, he was one of the most in-demand arrangers in the US going on to write for the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra along with contributions to such TV shows as Charlie’s Angels and Mission:Impossible.
He was the master of space; what Andy Sheppard refers to as “the thirteenth note”. His charts are resplendent with voicings that are warm, comforting and entirely melodic. There isn’t a single instant in any of his orchestrations where the backing interferes with the soloist; not a single wasted note, chord or riff. Everything is in its place; the result, as he said, of a lot of editing! His use of harmonic substitutions was subtle with soft edges; he didn’t want his writing to startle you, he wanted it to hug you, hold you, make you smile and feel good. Angular, in the musical sense, was an alien concept to Sammy Nestico.
His book, The Complete Arranger, was his proudest achievement; this after having supplied countless hundreds of charts designed to teach the next generation of big band musicians how to sit together, work together and create for the greater good. This could be the secret to his beautiful writing. It has a communal element to it that other writers lack. He never had sections ‘fighting’ each other musically; always supportive and complimentary. There are fifty seconds of ensemble in the middle of Gentle On My Mind from the album Bing ’n Basie, an often forgotten gem from 1972, that sum it up. With the entire brass section on bucket mutes and anchored by the saxes, the whole thing floats along effortlessly. It’s happy, you can feel the bond between band members and, above all, it swings!
Christine Jensen: Sammy lived a long life sharing many notes that make the listener feel good. He definitely gave me the big band bug in my teens, as his music was full of swinging hugs when the charts were put in front of me! Really though, he was a great composer because he orchestrated so much build and excitement, which made for such an enjoyable play or listen. Thank you Sammy for your amazing dedication to this art form of jazz in large ensemble.
Frank Griffith: I started playing Sammy Nestico arrangements in the mid 1970s in my high school “stage band” as they were known then. At that time he was the chief arranger for Count Basie and many of his titles were names of prizewinning racehorses, as Basie was well known for frequenting the racetrack. Titles like “Wind Machine”, “Whirlybird”, “Freckle Face” and “Magic Flea” come to mind. Nestico’s gift was to write very fulfilling arrangements for developing level bands that swung and displayed his individual voice. Rayburn Wright’s epic “Inside The Score” arranging tutor book, published in 1982, included charts by Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer and Sammy Nestico. Ironically, one can learn just as much from Nestico’s Hay Burner and Basie-Straight Ahead as from the others’ scores. They possess a wealth of economical and sensible voicings along with techniques to bring about drama and climaxes in an arrangement that have lost none of their capacity to inspire subsequent generations.
Callum Au: One of the first charts I ever played in a big band was Sammy Nestico’s Hay Burner. He had the rare gift of being able to write supremely swinging, intricate music, that was simultaneously accessible enough for younger players to play well. I soon bought his albums Night Flight’and Ya Gotta Try Harder, and was quickly hooked. There’s a rare elegance to his writing, a parsimony that results in a perfectly formed arrangement with nothing extraneous or out of place. His writing has inspired a whole generation of big band musicians and writers, and he will forever stand as one of the greatest big band writers of all time.