Steve Nelson: Vibing

Russ Musto By

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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.
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