Sam Most Is Jazz's Great Improviser

July 24, 1987|ZAN STEWART

Multi-reedman Sam Most knew early in his life that he wanted to be "a great improviser." Judging by some of the notables he has played or recorded with--Buddy Rich, Donald Byrd, Hank Jones, Teddy Wilson, Charles Mingus, Herbie Mann and Chick Corea among them--and some of the men who have acknowledged his influence as a flutist--such as Hubert Laws, Yusef Lateef and James Moody--Most has achieved his goal in a major way.

And while fame, at least among musicians, has been his, fortune for Most has been a little more elusive. "Making a consistent living at playing be-bop-oriented jazz is kind of tough," he said in an afternoon conversation in a Sherman Oaks restaurant.

"I haven't figured it out," he continued. "There are no steady gigs anymore. You work a night here, a week later, you work another room. I'm not too much of a hustler, because that doesn't seem natural. So I kind of wait for the phone to ring. I was calling (club owners) for a while but the rejections were too depressing. A lot of work in this town comes from word of mouth. It's a 'Don't call me, I'll call you' attitude.' "

Still, the 56-year-old Most, who plays tonight and Saturday with Ray Brown's trio at the Loa in Santa Monica, doesn't regret his decision to be a jazz player. "I never wanted to do anything else," he said. "I guess you'd say it was my calling and I love to express myself this way. I still have a growing interest, and when I hear beautiful things from great players, I want to know what they're doing.

Los Angeles Times Saturday July 25, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 10 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Bassist Ray Brown's trio will not appear tonight with Sam Most at the Loa in Santa Monica. The Times erroneously reported Friday that the group would join Most, who winds up there tonight. Most will be accompanied by pianist Frank Strazzeri, bassist Putter Smith and drummer Roy McCurdy.

"So, I'm a jazzman, for better or for worse. Since I haven't been married, it's almost as if I married my instruments," he added with a deep laugh.

Most--whose newest record is "Any Time, Any Season" (Innovation)--feels that "be-bop has never really been popular because it's more of a musician's language," he said. "(swing-styled jazz) was easier to relate to, since what you had was just a melody and a few chords. It wasn't so esoteric.

"Most musicians that played Swing, if they listened to more modern music, they'd say, 'What the heck are you doing, it doesn't swing, there's no melody, I can't understand it, I don't like it,' just like the picture behind you," he said, pointing to a Joan Miro print.

The soft-spoken, soft-toned reedman, who attended the Manhattan School of Music, enjoys his continuing study of music. "When I'm at home, I'll sit at the piano, working out harmonies or experimenting with different-sized intervals and seeing what kind of patterns they might form. Or I might just play tunes, on clarinet or tenor or flute. I see the instruments as friends that I like to say hello to, as if by playing them I'm saying, 'See, I haven't forgotten you. And I'll try to get back to you tomorrow.' "

Most developed his quiet, pleasantly foggy sound on both tenor sax and flute--many flutists have said he was the first to hum a note while simultaneously playing it--because, "since I've lived in apartments, I didn't want to disturb the neighbors, didn't want them to say, 'What the hell's that racket back there?' "

In addition to his ability as a player, Most is an accomplished scat-singer. "I started singing as a kid and later, when I was on a show with Dave Brubeck and Toots Thielemans in Virginia in 1955, I threw some in and the audience broke up," he remembered. "Then I didn't do it for a long while. I guess I thought, 'You don't scat in public.' But lately, if its a jazz audience, I might do it. Musicians seem to like it, since I sing like an instrument. So I've been throwing it in a little bit."

Initially inspired by his brother Abe, a renowned clarinetist, Most was influenced by swing-era greats like Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum and Ben Webster, and, ultimately the be-bop of Charlie Parker. "At 17, I walked into this smoky club on 52nd Street and Ben was blowing and I thought, 'That's what I want to do,' " he said. "Then I heard Bird (Parker) and that language, that be-bop, really hit me."

By the mid-'50s, Most had made a solid impact on the New York jazz scene. He recorded for Debut, Bethlehem and Vanguard Records, worked often at Birdland--"One night I led a Latin band with Mongo Santamaria, Candido and Potato Valdez"--co-led a group with Herbie Mann and appeared in several all-star sessions alongside modern masters like trumpeter Byrd, pianist Horace Silver, saxophonist Stan Getz and drummer Art Blakey. He also won the Down Beat magazine's New Star Flute award in 1955.

In the late 50s, he joined Rich's small group and, on a State Department-sponsored tour, traveled with the drummer to South America and the Far East. "Every time Buddy played a drum solo, it was a guarantee that the crowd would go wild," he recalled. "Buddy also told me that I had great time, and coming from him, that was quite a compliment."

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