Steve Nelson: Vibing

Russ Musto By

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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.
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