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Steve Nelson: Vibing

Russ Musto By

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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.
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