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Steve Nelson: Vibing


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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.


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