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Interviews

Steve Nelson: Vibing

By Published: August 1, 2006
Vibraphonist Steve Nelson began his career during the seventies, in his hometown of Pittsburgh, following the straight ahead path blazed by his first major influence, Milt Jackson. After a year with guitarist Grant Green he was playing and recording with his Rutgers professors James Spaulding and Kenny Barron, before landing a spot in David "Fathead Newman's quintet. Throughout the eighties Nelson was the vibists of choice among some of his generation's most talented up-and-comers, including Bobby Watson, Curtis Lundy, James Williams, Mulgrew Miller, Donald Brown, Geoffrey Keezer and Lewis Nash, developing a harmonically open sound, influenced by the innovations of Bobby Hutcherson, that led him to a spot in Dave Holland's award winning band. In between he's recorded a half dozen dates as a leader that showcase his own personal voice on the vibes.

AllAboutJazz: There have been so few vibraphonists in jazz; what first attracted you to the instrument?

Steve Nelson: Well, actually, there are probably more vibists than you think there are, first of all. I mean everywhere I go, at least since I've been traveling so much with Dave Holland, I actually meet— in every town that I go to—a few vibists. I guess compared to the other instruments there's not so many vibists, but there seems to be more and more coming around these days.

But anyway, I actually got into the vibes because a young guy that I used to hang around with in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I was born and grew up—his father actually played the vibes. He was one of those kind of guys that existed then [laughs], at that time, I guess it was the seventies or something, who lived in a town like Pittsburgh and played and was a great player, but was raising a family, worked in the steel mills, etc., etc., so he never came to New York, but was a tremendous vibraphonist. So, I actually heard him play and that's how I fell in love with the instrument. His name is George Monroe. I actually dedicated a song to him on one of my records called George A—"Blues For George A, and that's how I got started—through hearing him play.

AAJ: Were you playing any other instruments before that?

SN: Oh, I was afraid you were going to ask me that, Russ. I played a little drums, with the emphasis on very little drums, at that time and I never continued much on drums, after that. But, he got me into vibes and he also got me into piano, so I started playing a little piano around that time, too.

AAJ: When was that? About how old were you at the time?

SN: My dates are usually off, man. I don't know what year it was; I was around fifteen years old I guess—fifteen, sixteen years old.

AAJ: What kind of music did you play, once you began playing the vibes? Did you start playing jazz right away?

SN: You know, at the time ... yeah! It's a funny thing, I didn't really go through an extensive thing, like I guess most cats my age do; an extensive R&B thing and go through that whole thing, etc., etc. I had listened to all that as a kid, but when I heard this guy play, it immediately turned me around and from then on—I would really say that from the time I was fifteen or sixteen years old—I was hooked on playing jazz from then on. Before that I did everything else any other young guy would do. I listened to all the R&B stuff and everything like that, but from that moment on that was pretty much it for me.

AAJ: What music did you start listening to right away to study the vibes? Did you start with Lionel Hampton and move on to Milt Jackson and then Bobby Hutcherson?

SN: Oh, well it was Milt Jackson or nothing with this guy because he was a Milt Jackson lover in the greatest sense. Milt was his main man, so everything was Milt Jackson with him. So, I really got most exposed to Milt Jackson with him, so that was the main person on vibes I was listening to, but of course through meeting him and starting to learn how to play, I met a lot of other musicians in town, so it kind of blossomed into a thing where I started listening to everyone, to put it in a wide range.

AAJ: Did you start working right away, playing professionally on vibes?

SN: It didn't take me very long, because at that time, at around that age, I actually had just dropped out of high school, so I had nothing but time on my hands [laughs], so I just went into it full force. I didn't start working right away, but I would actually say that within about two years—which seems amazing to me now—I wasn't working, but within two years I was making my first jam sessions and everything, at least around town. I had at least gotten good to that point. I definitely would say that after three or four years I started doing gigs around town with local cats.

AAJ: Who were some of the musicians that you played with?

SN: Let's see, who was around at that time? Probably no one that you would know. None of the famous Pittsburgh cats were around at that time. They were all mostly musicians who were in that same vein, you know, who had stayed in town and who had played with all those great players, like Ahmad Jamal and Art Blakey and Mary Lou Williams and all of those great people, but they never quite made it out of town. So, there was a guy that I met in Pittsburgh at that time, his name was Kenny Fisher, he was a saxophonist. He was quite popular at that time in Pittsburgh, so I actually got into his band and started playing with him quite a bit. Who else was around? J.C. Moses, had come, the drummer who had played with Trane in the later years and played with Eric Dolphy. He had come home about that time, back to Pittsburgh, so I did some playing with him.

Who else? Actually, Tommy Turrentine had come in, back to Pittsburgh around that time, so I met him and played with him, actually in Kenny's band. Him and Kenny Fisher—he knew Kenny quite well. I mean there were tons of cats around. Roger Humphries, of course was around. Different pianists; who I can't remember all the guys' names. A guy named Jesse Kemp, he was a fine player. He was around. There were tons of cats. Eric Kloss, of course, was around Pittsburgh around that time. I did quite a few jam sessions and stuff with him. There was a little scene still in Pittsburgh around that time. Nothing like the earlier years of course, but there were still a few things going on.

AAJ: Opportunities to cut your chops.

SN: Yeah, opportunities to cut your chops and just learn the basics of the music. I think I learned most of my standards, a lot of the standards, from the guy I was telling you about. Then as I met a lot of the younger musicians I started getting into more into the things that Miles was doing and everything around that time. I got exposed to the Four & More (Columbia/Legacy, 1964) album and just tons of things that guys do who are coming up. You know, it was about the usual evolution of a young jazz musician I would say. I was real fortunate, I would say, that there was still a relatively active scene around Pittsburgh at that time, so it enabled me to work around town a little bit. Then Nathan Davis actually came on the scene a little later, so I played with him a bit.

AAJ: How did you make the move from being a high school dropout to getting a college degree in music education?

SN: [laughs] Actually, I have a Master's in music performance.

AAJ: From Rutgers?

SN: From Rutgers, yeah. Well, around that time my brother lived up in New Jersey, in New Brunswick. So, I was trying to find some direction and stuff, trying to figure out what to do and I wanted to come to New York, so my brother said "Well come on up and hang out with me, 'cause I'm close to New York and we'll go there and hang out and whatever, at least. At that time Rutgers was just starting their jazz program and I actually—my brother took me over to their campus to hang out one day and I sat in with some cats. Who was over there—Larry Ridley and Ted Dunbar, Kenny Barron—and I went over and sat in. They were having an outside jam session, I took my vibes over there—actually my brother took me over there, so I actually owe most of it to him, the whole education thing—and sat in with the cats and that was the beginning of it.

I guess they kind of liked what I was doing and they wanted to get me into the program, which was a fledgling program at that point. They were really trying to get people in, so they made quite easy for me to get in. So that's how I really got started on the scene in New York, man, because I had met all those cats—Freddie Waits was around there—it was just fate or something that I was there—you know Kenny Barron was there. Eventually I wound up playing in Freddie Waits' band—he had a band called Colors Revealed around that time—and eventually ended up playing with Kenny's band, too. I met James Spaulding there and did a lot of things with him and really got fed into the scene through that whole experience.

AAJ: You had played with Grant Green before that?

SN: Yeah, when did that happen? Somewhere in the interim there, around the time that I was still active in Pittsburgh, a little bit before I came up to New Jersey. It was around that area of time, anyway. There was a guy in Pittsburgh who is from Pittsburgh, another guy, named Jerry Byrd, who you might know; he plays a lot with Freddie Cole. I knew Jerry from Pittsburgh and we had done a lot of gigs around Pittsburgh together and had another one of those unofficial bands together. He knew Grant Green very well and Grant always used vibes in his band around that period; he always had a vibes player and his vibes player had broken his leg, or something like that and Jerry actually recommended me for that gig with Grant. So, I went with Grant and that was kind of my first road experience. It was only about a year or so that I stayed with him, so it wasn't extensive, but it was quite an experience to be next to that guitar.

AAJ: Did that bring you to the point that you heard the record Idle Moments (Blue Note, 1963) and were exposed to Bobby Hutcherson?

SN: No because at that time—I actually heard Idle Moments later—at that time that was in that period, man, where cats were into, you know cats like Lou Donaldson were into Alligator Boogaloo and all that stuff, so there was a little bit of a different vibe, even though we did play ... every night we'd play like a set of straight ahead tunes, but we'd also play sets of—I don't know what you would call it ...

AAJ: Funky stuff.

SN: Yeah.

AAJ: So you came to New York via your experience with the Kenny Barron and Spaulding and the rest of the Rutgers crew?

SN: Yes! Sure. Freddie Waits. Let's see, who else came through? Al Harewood came through there. I had a chance to hang out with all those guys and they fed me into the scene, more or less. I think it's pretty safe to say that's how I got started. I have no idea how I met some people. Some things just happened and I for the life of me can't recall. Like how I met Bobby Watson and Curtis [Lundy] and those guys.

AAJ: I'm sure Curtis just heard you and snatched you right up. He's always been quite the talent scout. He must have gotten that from his years with Betty Carter?

SN: I can't remember. I believe it must have been through the Jeffries brother that we met.

AAJ: Okay, Darryl and Duane, who were promoters at the time.

SN: Yeah, in the original Horizon.

AAJ: Is that where you first met Mulgrew [Miller] also?

SN: Mulgrew and I actually met a little later, even though I had known about him. We met a little later, but actually it was through Rutgers, too, in a sense, because we met through Bill Fielder, who knows Mulgrew very well. He actually brought Mulgrew up to Rutgers one day and we played all day, man, and that was it. From the first time that we played together it was magic, man, and we've been playing together ever since. We immediately hooked up musically; we synced so perfectly that I knew that we were going to be playing together for a long time. So, that's how I originally met Mulgrew—I can still remember that same day, actually, but even then the years go by and you forget how things came about and how they developed and everything, but eventually Wingspan came about and we've been doing it ever since. But that's how I met him through William Fielder.

AAJ: Who else were you playing with when you first came to the New York area?

SN: I was thinking about Donald Brown, as well. There was a period there where I was recording more with Donald than anybody else. I think I've did about five records with him, so I was always doing a project or something with Donald and that was really one of my main recording experiences was with him. All through those records Early Bird (Sunnyside, 1987), Cause and Effect (Muse, 1991)—I think there's one called Cartunes (Muse, 1993); there's one we did with Alan Dawson called, I think The Sweetest Sounds (Jazz City, 1988). You know, I did a lot of recording stuff with Donald.

AAJ: How did you meet Donald? Did you meet him through Mulgrew?

SN: I actually think I met Donald through James [Williams] and that's why I wanted to discuss James, too. All during that period there, I guess it was the period around the eighties, mid-to-late eighties, I did a lot of playing with Donald and also with James, who I think introduced me to Donald. You know, all up in Boston, mostly, at those clubs The Willow, Sculler's and those kind of clubs and James used to play gigs up there all the time and call me for them and he and I and Alan Dawson did a lot of those gigs and John Lockwood would do them. I think that's where I first met Antonio Hart; it was up there, up in Boston he came and did one of those gigs with us. That was a whole network in itself because I had met James and James introduced me to Donald. Then I met Billy Pierce up there and Lockwood and [Bill] Mobley and all of those guys. So the whole relationship with James was real important because I met a lot of cats and played a lot of great music.

James had written a lot of great tunes that we played, so I actually wanted to make sure I said something about that. That was before the I.C.U. thing that he had started. That was all just before that. After that I think he got kind of busy with that band, so I didn't play with him as much, but before that played with James quite a bit. And Donald as well, doing things on the road; go up to Claremont Farond and play. We'd do quite a lot of stuff together. So those two cats, Donald and James, were definitely important cats along the way.

AAJ: They're both great writers, too.

SN: Absolutely!

AAJ: So you got to play some music you hadn't played before while playing with them.

SN: Play a ton of music I hadn't played before. They had very large books, man, they both were cats that were always writing music and their books were thick [laughs] with tunes. So, that was a great thing.

AAJ: Did you consider yourself to be a good reader before that or did you have to get your reading chops together for their bands?

SN: Oh no, I'm still a terrible reader to this day, so it was a little tough, but it was much more easy for me because I knew those cats' playing so well, so it made it easy to play the music because I knew their style so well, so it wasn't quite as difficult to sight read because I kind of knew where they were going and I knew what their style of writing was, so it wasn't quite as tough. But some of the things were pretty tricky; I had to work on them. It was a challenge, in a good way, because I had to put some time in on some of those things. Both James and Donald wrote some great music. So that was all during the eighties. Actually, I met Geoff Keezer through James Williams and I did with Keezer, too, around that period. I think I did three or four CDs with Geoff. So then what else?

I think a little before that—I had always wanted to play with Jackie McLean—he was on my list, man, of players I had wanted to play with so bad and I had never gotten to play with and I must have put some positive energy out there 'cause lo and behold one day I got the call to do his date. So that was one of the greatest experiences for me—to do that.

AAJ: That was the Rhythm Of The Earth (Antilles, 1992) record.

SN: Yeah, Rhythm Of The Earth, yeah, with Steve Davis and the guys. So that was just a tremendous experience for me just to be hanging out with Jackie at the rehearsals and stuff and to do that date, so that was also ...

AAJ: You said you wanted to talk a little about Bobby Hutcherson's influence on your playing. Had you heard those records with Jackie and Bobby? Was that part of the reason you wanted to play with Jackie so badly?

SN: No, I just always loved Jackie's playing and his style and everything, so that ... I just loved Jackie's swinging, the way he swung so hard, man. That's really why I wanted to get a chance to play with him, because I just loved the way he played—his whole approach to playing. But Bobby, you know, the first time I heard Bobby I wasn't even all that hip to him. I knew him, I knew about him—I loved his playing, but I wanted to go hear him at the Vanguard one week, a long time ago. He had brought some cats in from the west coast and that week I think I went every night and he blew me away every night. And that's when I really started getting into Bobby and getting all the records, is when I went down to the Vanguard and sat down in front of him and heard him play. Each night I couldn't believe what I was hearing and had to come back the next night and the next night, until I finally realized that it wasn't that he was just having a good night [laughs], that was how he always.

That was my first experience with Bobby and then I really got more and more into his playing, because before that I had been more into Milt's playing and the more I got into Bobby the more interesting it became because he was playing ... he had played in so many different settings and things with different cats from Grachan Moncur, Eric Dolphy and Herbie Hancock and all his records and the stuff he did with Joe Henderson—vibes and tenor. All these different settings for the vibes that Bobby has been in—and the things with Jackie, so that really turned me on to that—how many things the vibes could do. The different ways that they could function and everything—not to mention that he's the main bridge from Milt Jackson to now—from Hamp to Milt to Bobby, so I became really enthralled with Bobby for a very, very, very long time. He's still one of my biggest influences, no doubt, and he's still playing great. Those cats, between Bobby and Milt, especially, they like invented whole styles of playing. It's an amazing thing, cats like Bobby and Milt and ... All the great cats actually did that anyway, Elvin Jones, Miles, they all invented like whole styles, whole approaches to the instruments— that's kind of what Bobby did after Milt.

AAJ: Do you feel that Bobby's influence caused you to make specific alterations to your own approach to the instrument?

SN: No doubt, I'm sure it did. It was a pretty logical progression though, you know, from Milt to Bobby, but I'm sure my playing opened up a lot more in terms of, you know, more open kinds of harmonies and things like that, you know, it had a big influence on me in terms of being much more open to different sounds and stretching the harmonies and things like that, which Bobby does so well. So yeah, it changed my playing, no doubt about it. You know, you pass through all your influences and things and hopefully you squeeze your own style out of there somewhere, but Bobby was a huge influence on my playing for sure, so I couldn't ... you can't go through an interview without mentioning Bobby Hutcherson, if you're a vibes player, no matter who you are.

AAJ: Getting back to your playing experience, you were with David "Fathead Newman's band for quite a while.

SN: That was a long period that I worked with Fathead. He was another one of those cats from a certain era who had developed their own sound that's immediately recognizable. I played in his band for about five years. Playing with someone with that kind of experience, it's like the learning experience is ... like they don't teach you verbally, the learning experience is just listening to them play every night, listening to the sound, number one, which he had, which is so distinctive, you know, the sound, the feeling, his playing.

There're many things you can learn from Fathead, man. He used to play and he always would, you know, he would take what was there when he played a solo. That's what I learned from him. You know in jazz sometimes the spirit is there with you and sometimes it's just not there. If it wasn't there, he'd bow out after three or four choruses, but if he struck up a groove, you know, and it was there, he could take about thirty choruses, just riding the groove, but he always knew exactly when to end a solo and when to take another chorus or a few more choruses, you know, he had that kind of intuitive knowledge and experience.

That's the kind of thing you can only get from playing with a cat like that and just listening to how they do that. If it wasn't happening after five choruses or so, he might bow out. The next solo he might take about thirty choruses and ride the wave. So it was great to check that out, not to mention that he was advancing his playing, too, all the while I was with him. I'd hear him more and more going for different things in fourths and stuff, so even from his era he was always experimenting around. Yeah, that was another great experience and always swinging.

AAJ: At first your membership in his group seemed like a bit of strange choice, but then thinking of the Ray Charles connection between both him and Bags made it seem perfectly logical.

SN: That's a good point.

AAJ: And that band did dig in very deep into some grooves.

SN: Yeah man, [laughs] we got some great grooves. We had some marvelous weeks at the Vanguard with Kirk and Eddie Gladden, the late Eddie Gladden. Yeah, we had a ball, so you know I enjoyed playing with Fathead for all those years and everything. And we would always play together, you know, if we were playing a ballad I could always kind of weave things around him and everything, while we were playing. He'd be playing the melody and I'd be kind of playing inside and outside of what he was doing. It was a good hook up,

AAJ: Is that where you first played with Kirk?

SN: No I first played with Kirk—there used to a club in the Village called the Jupiter Café—now I'm going way back—on 10th Street—I don't know what year it was, but that's when I first played with Kirk. I remember that because I think we played duo that day. Yeah, that's when I first met Kirk Lightsey because I remember I was carrying my vibes down the street [laughs]. First time I ever saw Kirk I was carrying my vibes and I dropped my pedal on the street there—on 10th Street there—and I looked back and Kirk Lightsey was behind me and he said, "Don't worry about it, I got your back. [laughs] and he picked up my pedal. For some reason I always remember that was my first Kirk Lightsey experience. That's where I first met Kirk, at the Jupiter Café and then later we played together in Fathead's band and I can't remember ... oh yeah, [bassist] David Williams did a lot of those gigs with us, too, on bass.

AAJ: You also worked with George Shearing, which is a classic kind of role for a vibraphonist, since he had one of the first groups where the vibes were integrated into the whole sound of the band.

SN: Yeah, I can't even remember how I got that gig, but I worked with George for about a good three years. That was one of his last quintet bands. He had disbanded the quintet for a while. I think he was just playing duos mostly with Neil Swenson on bass and then he brought it back with Red Schwager, actually Louis Stewart first, the Red Schwager, on guitar, Dennis Mackrel [on drums] and myself. So you know, that was a whole other experience; that was a thing of subtlety. The dynamic level was just a whisper, so you really had to get inside the other person's sound and really sync up with what the band was doing because a lot of things had to be played in unison together. So that was another great experience and another lesson kind of in understatement and subtlety with George for those three years, which I thoroughly enjoyed. We played some great music and some great arrangements and just to be part of that sound was really nice for that time. So that was another really good experience.

AAJ: Did that cause you to go back and explore Cal Tjader and the sound of that group of George's with him?

SN: Well ... I'll tell you, I had already loved Cal before I even met George. Cal Tjader is actually one of my favorite vibists, you know. I love Cal Tjader's sound and I love him for the fact that he maintained his own style, all the time—separate from Milt and Hamp and Gary Burton and Bobby and everybody. He had his own concept and his own style and he always maintained it, so I always really enjoyed Cal Tjader's playing. He's one of the underrated vibes player out there, really. So I heard him before George Shearing, but yeah he did play with George. Most vibes players that you know by name probably did play with George at one time or another. A ton of them anyway—Gary Burton, Emil Richards, a lot of vibes players—Buddy, Montgomery—a lot of cats played with George. So that's another great band that I had the pleasure to play with. Not to mention all the other great musicians from my generation that I got to work with over the years, like Mulgrew and Lewis Nash and Peter Washington and all the cats I kind of came up with. Bobby Watson, Kenny Washington, all those cats. Playing together all these years, they've all been big influences on my playing

AAJ: After playing with a lot of pianists—Kenny Barron, Mulgrew, James Williams, Donald Brown, Kirk Lightsey, George Shearing—on your own recordings—and then you wound up in a piano-less band. How did you hook up with Dave Holland?

SN: I met Dave through Tony Reedus, actually. We did a record, I believe it was Tony's first record and, I guess to show you how the network had been set, I had met Tony in Wingspan, he had been playing with us in Mulgrew's band at that time and he decided to do his own record. He got a chance to do his own record and he had Dave on it. I can't remember the tenor player's name who ...oh yeah, Gary Thomas was on it; and some other people. I met Dave and we hooked up pretty well, we hooked up, but Tony actually had that idea for the vibes in the rhythm section there like that, playing four mallets. He wanted that in there, so that's we kind of did on that CD, as I recall. And I think that Dave, Dave heard that and me and Dave synced up real well and so Dave called me in to do some rehearsals after that with his band. I remember the first rehearsal. I was pretty much stumbling over myself and I didn't know if I would get the gig or not, but apparently he heard something in there that he liked and thought would work with the band, so he called me back to play with the band and that was it. But that's how I met Dave, through that gig with Tony Reedus.

AAJ: Was that one of the rare occasions that you played a gig without a piano up until that time?

SN: Well, you know, I have to say that when I first came around New York, I did that quite a bit because a lot of the things, even with Horizon, the early Horizon, we didn't have a piano all the time. Sometimes it was just me, Bobby, Curtis and Smitty, or Kenny Washington, sometimes we'd work without a piano. And then Mickey Bass, I played with his band around that time, too. And I played without piano with him, too. I met Wynton in that band; quite a few cats—Carter Jefferson came through that band and different guys. That's where I met Robin Eubanks, actually, through Mickey Bass. So, I had done some before, as well. A little bit in Pittsburgh, too. Sometimes, in this business you had to do it because the joints didn't always have pianos or the pianos were so terrible that it necessitated doing that. So, I had done a bit of it around town, but with Dave it was much more extensive.

AAJ: The role of your instrument changed a bit in Dave's band. In the other groups you were more or less playing the part of a pianist, whereas in Dave's band you blossomed into a different kind of player.

<SN: Uh-huh. The thing about it is, like I said, a lot of times before it was a necessity that they had to do it, or the money wouldn't allow the extra player or something like that. So it was like "you got it. But I think Dave actually heard that sound in his head, so the vibraphone was more woven into the whole fabric of the band—it was more of an integral part of the sound of the band, so that's one of differences. So you became an accompanist like the piano, but you also ... there were also lots of melody parts written, lots of counterpoint lines written, things written on marimba and things like that that were really woven into the complete sound of the group.

AAJ: Later the group expanded into a big band, which was really different—to have a big band with the vibes as the only chordal instrument.

SN: There are times when I make the mistake of saying that that's never been done before, but of course vibes have been in big bands before—whether it was Hamp leading a big band and Bobby on the thing with Dexter, where Slide wrote all the parts for Bobby. And there were other cats, too, but I just don't know if vibes have ever been used in that sense in a big band before. The big band in that way is an extension of the quintet—of Dave's quintet—to a large degree. So the use of the vibraphone in that big band is—is pretty unique, I'll just say that. I'm always hesitant to say something's never been done because somebody will tell me that somebody else did it in some year or other, but it's unique in that sense. And the marimba is in there and things like that. I think it makes the big band quite a unique experience, having the vibes in there.

AAJ: How do you think that your playing has changed through your years of experience with Dave?



SN: Wow, man, that's a good question, Russ. [pause] You know, I'm not so sure that it has changed that much [laughs]. I'm still the player that I was more or less in the eighties and everything. Hopefully I've gotten better; I've gotten technically better on the instrument. Hopefully I can express myself a little better and I've advanced somewhat rhythmically and harmonically and melodically, as I've gone through the years. I hope that I have more to say. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. You know, I'm still along the same lines that I think that I've always been. There haven't been any major changes in terms of my playing in any revolutionary sense. I knew I wanted to play jazz at a very early age and I started doing it and I've kind of done it ever since. So, whatever I brought into Dave's group, or any other group for that matter, it's usually because the person heard something in my playing that they wanted to add into the group and I just add into it.

In Dave's band, one of the things that happens, is that you have so much room in there to express yourself that you can't help but to try out a lot of new ideas and work out a lot of different rhythms and try out a lot of different harmonic structures and things behind the soloists—see if they like it or not and you discard it if they don't. He gives you so much room as a bandleader to do those things, and it's a relatively small band so everybody has room to play. So you certainly grow in terms of material that you gain just from experience as you go on. Probably there are many sounds that I've experimented with, especially with four mallets and things, that I may not have had a chance to do if I didn't have that kind of room, that kind of open room in that band. Because the thing with that band is that it's all about the interplay between the cats, between the musicians, so there's plenty of room for group improvisation and things like that, so you have a lot of room to express yourself.

But having said that, like I say, the root of it, the thread of it, goes right back to Pittsburgh, still. I'm the same kind that came up through Pittsburgh, that's trying to learn how to play. So hopefully that always comes through; the blues always comes through and melody always comes through in my playing.

AAJ: I did feel, hearing you with Kirk Lightsey at the Jazz Standard last week, that there was more of an emphasis on group improvisation than there would have been ten years ago. Your approach to the instrument seems to be more bold in terms of your willingness to play behind other soloists.

SN: That might be true. It's a funny thing, after playing that week with Kirk, I'm so much wanting to play with him again because I actually think that there could be more of that. I did more probably, in terms of group interaction and things, than I may have done at one point, but in a weird kind of way Kirk has some of the same energy that Dave has. He gives you a lot of space, too, and he expects you to take it and do something with it. So, I did some of that in terms of interplay with him, because he likes to keep the music going; rather than stop and call tunes, he likes to keep a continuous thing happening, so there's a lot of segues and interludes and things and those are the areas where there's a lot of interplay and I feel like I could have been even more open to that. So, as you say, I probably did more of that than I would have in the Bradley's years, but I could have been even more open and done more.

Which brings me to an important point, which is if you have a band, you can explore more things. That's the great thing about playing with Dave Holland. We have a band, so I can say this to you—that I wish I would have explored more things—and then we'll have another tour, another tour next month and I'll have a chance to do those things. That's the beauty of having a working band.

AAJ: Do you like being a sideman? You don't work as a leader very often. Do you have ideas for leading a group that you want to put into play?

SN: Yeah, I wouldn't mind doing some things as a leader. To be honest with you, a large part of it is probably is just the fact that I have been blessed to get a lot of work as a sideman, so that has kept me busy. Being a bandleader is a serious task and it takes up a huge hunk of time, so you have to really make a conscious decision to make a space for that. Hopefully in the future, none of us are getting any younger, so hopefully I'll be doing more things of my own, to have my own band.

AAJ: You came up learning on the bandstand. These days most jazz musicians learn in the classroom, which you did also. So, you kind of have one foot in each camp. How do you feel about the growing trend of jazz becoming an academic music?

SN: Well ... I don't know. I can honestly say that; in the final analysis, I really don't know. In my case, I was left a lot alone to my own devices for many years before I started school. So I started out learning from the all the cats around town in Pittsburgh in a very, very hands on kind of way, man. I mean the guys would actually take their hands [laughs] and put them on the keys on the piano and say "no, put this finger here and this finger here, for this voicing, etcetera. That's the grounding, that's the roots that I got, so when I came to Rutgers everything was placed on top of that, but I already had the raw materials and the basis because of the background that I got coming up in Pittsburgh and actually that what the cat's saw, I think—what Kenny Barron and all those guys [at Rutgers] saw. They said, "Well he's already got the basic thing going, so he's worth spending the time to mold some more because he's already got a basis going.

The problem comes in, of course, now that there's not such a scene in the cities any more, where guys just don't get that basic training anymore, of coming up and learning from the old cats, cats you never even heard of, you know, the legendary cats in each town. I'm not so sure that there is so much of that anymore, so cats are going directly into the educational system and that's where they're trying to get their base and I think that's part of the problem—they don't have a strong connection to the roots of the music anymore except from an educational institution. But, I mean who's to say? There are fine young players out there, who seem to keep thriving and doing quite well and playing their ass off. So there is something to be said for the fact that...no one is able to say what order you should do things in. Maybe you can go to school and cop that and come out and round yourself off later. It's just not the way that I did it.

AAJ: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you want to say?

SN: Oh man, Russ, you got so much material here that you could write a book about me.

AAJ: Well that's good because there hasn't been very much written about you up until this point. It's not like I had to spend a lot of time doing research for the interview. There's just not a lot to look up.

SN: I guess you're right about that. You know, there's not that much to say. I'm just basically a guy that grew up in Pittsburgh trying to learn how to play the vibes—learned from my hometown cats in Pittsburgh. I was blessed to grow in Pittsburgh when I did, that's for sure. Since then I've just been trying to play with everybody I can. I've been pretty successful in my career, but I've got a long way to go.


Selected Discography

Steve Nelson, Fuller Nelson (Sunnyside, 2004)
Dave Holland Big Band, Overtime (Dare2/Sunnyside, 2003)
Mulgrew Miller and Wingspan, The Sequel (Max Jazz, 2002)
Steve Nelson, New Beginnings (TCB, 1999)
Bobby Watson, Jewel (Evidence, 1983)
Kenny Barron, Golden Lotus (Muse, 1980)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Jos L. Knaepen

Center Photo: Alan Nahgian
Bottom Photo: Frans Schellekens


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