Thursday, December 03, 2009
By Peter B. King, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Cees van de Ven
You might not recognize the name Steve Nelson unless you're a hard-core jazz fan. Or a jazz musician. Plenty of his colleagues know and appreciate the East Liberty native's virtuoso vibraphone playing -- they call on him regularly to tour and record. From stints with pianist Kenny Barron and sax man David "Fathead" Newman to globe-trotting with ex-Miles Davis bassist Dave Holland, Nelson has made his success mainly as a sideman.
"I'm lucky that I've always been working and been involved in projects with someone or another," the 55-year-old Nelson says on the phone from his home in Patterson, N.J., which offers a quick commute to New York's clubs. "I've been blessed even if I'm not famous or anything, because I have the respect of my peers. And that is what enables you to work more than anything else in this business."
With: Mulgrew Miller, piano; Ivan Taylor, bass; Rodney Green, drums.
Where: Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, East Liberty.
When: Saturday 8 p.m.
Tickets: $20 advance, $25 at the door; www.brownpapertickets.com
More information: www.kentearts.org
One place Nelson hasn't worked much since he left town in the '70s is Pittsburgh. He can recall only one gig here since then, with Holland at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. So his homecoming Saturday at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty leading a quartet is cause for excitement -- especially among his family.
"My mother still lives in Pittsburgh. She's in Shadyside now. She's lived all her life in Pittsburgh. She has like five sisters, and they all have children in Pittsburgh. My father, who is deceased, he had uncles and aunts and nieces and nephews and cousins. I predict that the concert hall will be overflowing with family members."
Nelson's family was living on Rowan Street in East Liberty when he was born. They moved to Wilkinsburg when he was 15 or 16.
"I dropped out of high school. I don't think I ever made it through 10th grade, man. Fortunately, that coincided with my ascent into music. I had a lot of time on my hands so I practiced a lot. I wish that the concept of art high schools was available then, because I think it would have made a big difference in my life. But it all worked out."
Nelson's epiphany came when he heard his friend's dad, one George Monroe, playing the vibraphone in the Monroe family's basement.
"From the moment I heard him play, that was it. It was like a moment I'll never forget. I knew that was what I wanted to do."
Monroe, a performer before taking a job in a mill, taught Nelson and introduced him to his musical pals.
Nelson began playing around town in saxophonist Kenny Fisher's band, most frequently at an East Liberty club called the Diplomat. Fisher passed away on Oct. 25 at the age of 69. Nelson is dedicating the concert to him.
"He was a great tenor saxophonist," Nelson recalls. "He's another one of those guys that played in Pittsburgh but didn't make it out, but he certainly could have. He used to come over to my house and pick me up and we would make gigs at the Diplomat. The Crawford Grill was still happening then, and we played different concerts all around town."
Through Fisher, Nelson got to play with drummer J.C. Moses, who had recorded with Kenny Dorham and Eric Dolphy, and trumpeter Tommy Turrentine, brother of sax star Stanley Turrentine. Nelson played a few gigs with drummer Roger Humphries, who personifies Pittsburgh jazz to this day. Nelson would sit in with Spider Rondinelli on drums and Eric Kloss on sax at a club called Sonny Day's. Nathan Davis, then starting up jazz studies at Pitt, fielded a band with Nelson, Moses, trombonist Nelson Harrison (formerly with Count Basie), bassist Mike Taylor and pianist Vince Genova.
Pittsburgh guitarist Jerry Byrd, who went on to play with Freddie Cole (Nat's brother), referred Nelson to Grant Green, a nationally known guitarist. Green gave Nelson his first touring experience.
A year or so later, Nelson passed his G.E.D. exam and then began earning a master's degree in music performance at Rutgers University. Nelson's brother, a lawyer, was studying law at Rutgers at the time.
"My brother was instrumental in getting me into Rutgers. He went down to the program there and said, 'My brother is searching for some direction and he wants to play jazz.' And [bassist and program founder] Larry Ridley said, 'Well bring him down and we'll hear him and see how he does.' And that's how I got into Rutgers, I went down and played for those cats."
It was around that time that Nelson first heard live performances by Bobby Hutcherson, the adventurous vibes player who backed post-bop greats such as Herbie Hancock and "free jazz" musicians such as Archie Shepp. Nelson remembers hearing Hutcherson at New York's Village Vanguard and then going back for each night of his five-night stand. Hutcherson and Milt Jackson, the vibraphonist who brought the instrument into the bebop era, are Nelson's two biggest influences.
The faculty at Rutgers boasted name jazz musicians including Kenny Barron, drummer Freddie Waits and saxophonist Frank Foster. Nelson reached what he calls his "first big milestone" when Barron asked Nelson to play in his band.
"That put me in the New York clubs -- Sweet Basil and Fat Tuesday's, and I'm playing with Buster Williams, Kenny Barron, Ben Riley and all these great musicians, and all the great musicians are coming in to hear them. So I'm meeting everybody. And everyone is getting a chance to hear me.
"Later on when I did get with Dave Holland, that's when more acclaim started to happen. That's when I started traveling all over the world. That's when things really opened up for me."
The list of places where Nelson has played with Holland includes South Africa, Australia, Iceland, all over Europe and Scandinavia, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, China and Greenland. (Yes, Greenland.)
Over the years, Nelson has recorded a half dozen albums as a leader -- "Sound-Effect" and "Full Nelson" among them -- more mainstream fare than the music he's recorded as a sideman with Holland and others.
But Nelson doesn't seem to seek center stage -- no Facebook page, no Twitter account. Doesn't he want to call the tunes, take the largest slice of the pie, have 8,974 virtual friends?
"I want to get more of my own things going, but most of my focus is just on really learning how to play the instrument better," he responds. "There's probably a million things about the business aspect that I should be doing better.
"But it hasn't really hurt me so far in terms of what I want to do. I'm playing great music with great musicians, and I'm enjoying it. And I have such focus on just trying to play the instrument better now, that my focus becomes less on advertising and less on promotion as I get older. In other words," he says with a laugh, "I don't know if it's going to change."
Former Post-Gazette staff writer Peter B. King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09337/1017949-388.stm#ixzz0Z8vsILPw