Composed and arranged by Sammy Nestico.
Recorded by Count Basie and His Orchestra for Dot on September 3-4, 1968 in Hollywood, California.
Sammy Nestico, piano, directing: Gene Coe, first trumpet; George “Sonny” Cohn, Oscar Brashear, and Al Aarons, trumpets; Grover Mitchell, first trombone; Steve Galloway and Richard Boone, trombones; Bill Hughes, bass trombone; Marshal Royal, first alto saxophone; Bobby Plater, alto saxophone and flute; Eric Dixon, tenor saxophone; Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, tenor saxophone; Charlie Fowlkes, baritone saxophone; Freddie Green, guitar; Norman Keenan, bass; Harold Jones, drums. NOTE: Basie was in the studio but did not participate in this particular recording.(1)
The story: The story behind “Hay Burner,” is really the story of Sammy Nestico. Like so may others, Sammy’s professional biography is one of almost overnight success, …after more than thirty years as a working musician. The magic wand that propelled Nestico from a solid but almost anonymous career in music, to the best work in Hollywood through the 1970s and well into the 1980s and beyond, was held by Count Basie. (At left: Nestico on trombone – 1961.)
Samuel L. Nestico (1924 -2021) was born in that hotbed of swing and jazz, Pittsburgh. Through his early years, he learned to play the trombone and arrange, played with many bands in the Pittsburgh area, and spent time as a staff musician on WCAE, the ABC radio network affiliate in Pittsburgh. He served a total of 20 years in the US military, three years in World War II, then 17 more years with duties as a musician, switching from Air Force to Marines. He retired in 1968 as chief arranger for the U.S.Marine Corps band in Washington, D.C. In the 1940s, Nestico played trombone in swing era bands led by Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey and Gene Krupa.
Sammy Nestico and the tenor saxophonist Salvatore “Sal” Nistico (1941-1991), despite slightly different spellings of their surnames, were first cousins. Sal Nistico was one of the busiest musicians in the decade of the 1960s, playing, among others, with the big bands of Woody Herman and, (in 1965) Count Basie. Sammy Nestico filled in the details of how his career in music took some very positive turns in an interview in 2010 with Marc Myers of the wonderful Jazzwax.com website. (See the links below for Marc’s full interview with Sammy Nestico.)
SN: “I knew I had been born Sammy Nestico. But when I had looked at my dad’s navy bible, I saw that his last name was spelled ‘Nistico.’ Through my relatives, I found out that Sal and I were related. We’re cousins. So I called him up. He was playing with Count Basie at the time.
JW: What did you say?
SN: I said, ‘The next time you and the band come to Washington, D.C., come by and see me.’ I was leading the U.S. Marine Band there at the time. Not long after our conversation, the Basie band came to town, and Sal called and came over. When he saw what I had been writing, he said, ‘You ought to write for Basie.’ I laughed and said, ‘I’m not good enough for him.’ Sal said, ‘Yes you are. Why don’t you come out to the job and meet Basie.’ (Above right: Basie and Nestico – early 1970s.)
JW: Did you go?
SN: Of course. But instead of Sal introducing me to the Chief, he had trombonist Grover Mitchell do it. Grover was from Pittsburgh, my home town. When I met Basie, he asked me to write a couple of arrangements. I had already written ‘The Queen Bee’ and ‘Quincy and the Count.’ The second one wasn’t fully formed yet, but ‘The Queen Bee’ was real nice. I gave that to him and a couple of others. After about three months, Grover called me after the job they had played someplace and said, ‘The Chief likes your charts. Write some more.’ So I wrote more and more, and we finally had enough for an album.
JW: What was your first album with Count Basie?
SN: ‘Basie: Straight Ahead.’ Between my meeting with Basie and the call to do the album, I had finally decided to move out to California. I figured if I didn’t do it, I’d always regret it. Two months after I arrived, I was conducting Basie’s band at the recording session on Vine Street in Los Angeles. I couldn’t believe it.”
Between 1968 and 1983, Sammy composed and arranged 10 albums for Count Basie’s band, four of which won Grammy Awards. At the start of his time in Hollywood, in addition to writing for Basie, Nestico worked with fellow Pittsburgher Billy May on the mammoth Capitol Records Swing Era project, transcribing the music from classic swing recordings so that it could be performed and recorded in state-of-the-art high fidelity stereophonic sound. These assignments quickly led to other high-level work. At age 45, Nestico was on his way to a successful high-level career in music.
The music: Sammy Nestico’s writing, among its many other virtues, is extremely melodic. In “Hay Burner,” we hear one melodic fragment melding into another throughout the entire composition/arrangement. After the superbly Basie-ish introduction played by Nestico on piano (2), the main melody is set forth in eight bars by a Harmon-muted trumpet (probably Al Aarons, the vastly underappreciated trumpet soloist in this Basie band), in unison with a flute, played by Bobby Plater. Nestico’s melody immediately but slyly evokes musical themes that were ubiquitous in Hollywood Western films and TV shows in the 1950s and 1960s. The two-beat rhythm subtly suggests a horse walking slowly with a leather-skinned cowboy astride it, across a scrubby plain in Marlboro Country. (Remember, this was composed in the 1960s.) (Above left – the Basie band as it appeared in Mel Brooks’s “Blazing Saddles” – 1974.)
Aside from a couple of Nestico’s brief piano spots, there are no solos in “Hay Burner.” This arrangement was designed to show off the ensemble virtuosity and swinging panache of the late 1960s Basie band. It was one of the most muscular on the scene then, with eight brass, five saxophones led by the formidable Marshal Royal, and Basie’s aphoristic but always swinging piano leading a strong rhythm section. What Sammy wrote in his arrangement of “Hay Burner” fit the character of this band perfectly. Nestico’s arrangement is beautifully paced, with many instrumental colors and contrasts. (Right: Sammy Nestico in 2003)
The trombones, led by Grover Mitchell, play a robust couple of notes that lead to the repeat of the melody played this time by another grouping of instruments. The reeds take the bridge, being balanced against the rhythmic open brass. The flute and Harmon-muted trumpet, with tasty punctuations from the trombones and other instruments, including Charlie Fowlkes’s big-tone baritone saxophone, then finish the first chorus.
With the listener now oriented to the melody, Nestico begins the second chorus with variations: the entire ensemble plays first, then the saxophones, then a bit of solo piano against a background of reeds and wa-wa brass and then a vigorous sixteen-bar soli played by the saxophone quintet under Marshal Royal’s dynamic lead. Notice how Nestico comps the saxophones on piano in this sequence: he had been listening carefully to the master – Count Basie. Nestico builds a sonic pyramid next, first with the trombones, then the trumpets, then the whole band, and they are shouting. But not for long. More contrasts soon arrive, this time in the dynamics used: louder then softer.
Once again Nestico at the piano provides the pivot point for the ensemble which follows. The various sections of the orchestra, trombones, trumpets and saxophones play antiphonally for eight bars. After this brilliant climax, the dynamic level drops again, and we hear the main flute and mute melody against those tasty instrumental background voices. The finale is a big one, with the entire ensemble building to a blasting end.
This is happy music created by a happy man, who at age 95, as this is written, is still with us. Thanks Sammy, and keep swinging!
The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) A book I have long considered to be one of the best bio-discographies, Chris Sheridan’s Count Basie …a Bio-Discography (1986), states the following about Basie’s participation in the recording of “Hay Burner”: “Basie absent. Sammy Nestico, piano.” We have known since the release in 1968 of the LP album that initially contained “Hay Burner,” Basie, Straight Ahead, that Sammy Nestico played piano on another selection that appeared in that album, “That Warm Feeling.” This was an expedient because on that track, Basie played organ, and did not want to shuttle between the piano and organ keyboards. Consequently, Nestico played piano on “That Warm Feeling,” and Basie played organ.
(2) Despite the explanation above, it is not clear why Basie ceded the piano bench to Nestico for the recording of “Hay Burner.”
Here is a link to another wonderful performance by the late 1960s Basie band, this time playing the music of the Beatles, superbly arranged by Bob Florence: https://swingandbeyond.com/?s=Beatles
Note: Sammy Nestico died on January 17, 2021 a couple of weeks before his 97th birthday.