Hod O’Brien Meets Sal Nistico

Jazz was in a strange place in the 1980s. I remember being fresh out of college and working my first job in New York. There were plenty of clubs in town, but other than the big ones where legends performed, the scene was fairly run down and mighty thin on young people in the audience. The excitement of fusion in the 1970s had led to synthpop and funk in the ’80s, and the action was all on MTV and at arena concerts. Smaller pop acts commanded big fees and full houses at clubs in Greenwich Village, but acoustic jazz musicians trying to earn a living had it rough, and recording opportunities were drying up fast for them as larger labels had trouble with sales. [Photo above of the late pianist Hod O’Brien with his wife, singer Stephanie Nakasian]

Many American jazz musicians headed off to Europe, where they were adored at the dozens of clubs located in large cities and smaller towns. Europe still had sophisticated taste then and hadn’t experienced the youth-culture overhaul of the States. Over there, radio was tightly regulated and didn’t play as big a role in shaping the culture. In Europe, American jazz musicians found a sanctuary and compatriots. A number of artists had moved there in the ’70s and established beachheads while those who still lived in the U.S. found plenty of touring opportunities there with solid local sidemen.

Two American musicians who found themselves in Europe in 1986 were pianist Hod O’Brien and tenor saxophonist Sal Nistico (photo above, by Joe Knaepen). Backed by Harry Emmery on bass and John Engels on drums, O’Brien and Nistico appeared at the Porgy & Bess Club in Terneuzen, the Netherlands on Dec. 13, 1986. Fortunately, Joop van der Leij was there as well. Joop has always been a big Hod O’Brien fan and a gifted recording engineer. Over the years, he taped virtually everything O’Brien recorded in Europe between 1984 and 2015, with O’Brien’s permission, of course, and gratitude. He also prepared a complete O’Brien discography. O’Brien died in November 2016.

Last week, O’Brien’s wife, singer Stephanie Nakasian, sent along Hod O’Brien Meets Sal Nistico: Live From the Netherlands, recorded by Joop at that Netherlands club. The album features seven tracks—Quasimodo, But Beautiful, Airegin, Indian Summer, Minority, My Old Flame and I’ll Remember April. Nistico had mellowed a bit by 1986 but he still had a sharp bite in his attack and was fleet in technique. The big surprise though is O’Brien.

On this album, O’Brien (above) exceeds even himself, providing us with exceptional examples of what made his playing style and solos so exciting. I found I couldn’t wait for O’Brien to solo on each track. The sheer beauty and fluidity of his playing is stunning. I’m hard pressed to name another live O’Brien album that exceeds this one. It was a great night for him. As Stephanie said to me last night by email when I told her my thoughts, “That’s what Hod said when he heard the tape. He said, ‘I think its some of my best playing. I wish we could release this.’ So we did.”

Jazz has plenty of selfless heroes—those who recorded musicians in their prime, with their permission, so we have evidence of their miraculous talents. Joop is one of those heroes. The same goes for Stephanie for releasing this album and many others by her husband.

JazzWax tracks: You’ll find Hod O’Brien Meets Sal Nistico: Live From the Netherlands here.

JazzWax clip: Here’s I’ll Remember April