Tag Archives: Dave Holland

William Parker Blindfold Test From Ten Years Ago, Uncut

The Vision Fest began yesterday, and is in full swing. So it  seems apropos to give a nod to William Parker, a monster bassist, tireless worker, and generous spirit. Without him—and without his wife, the dancer and organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker—this great event would be a very different entity…if it existed at all.

About ten years ago, William agreed to sit with me for the DownBeat Blindfold Test. For reasons that would take too long to explain, he had to listen to everything with cheap headphones through a Sony Diskman — and got through it like a champ! This, of course, is the raw copy.

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William Parker (Blindfold Test):

1.  Cachao, “Descarga A,” Master Sessions: Vol. 2 (Columbia, 1995) [4 stars]

I think, from the bowing in the beginning, that that was Israel Lopez — Cachao.  People have been telling me about him for years and years, and I’ve just heard specks here and there.  Unfortunately, right now, I don’t own one of his CD’s.  But I enjoyed that very much.  It was just a happy folk feeling that I really like in a lot of music I prefer to listen to, because it’s bright and had a song going through it — and his bass playing is right on.  It’s very-very-very nice.  And the singing, the trombones, the saxophones, everything was very-very-very tasty.  So I would give that four stars.

2.  Andrew Hill,  “Wailing Wall,” Smokestack, (Blue Note, 1963/1995) [4 stars] (Richard Davis & Eddie Khan, basses;  Hill, piano; Roy Haynes, drums)

[ONE MINUTE IN] This is two basses. [2 MINUTES IN} This is Richard Davis. [2½ MINUTES] I’m trying to figure out who this piano player is.  Is that Andrew Hill?  Andrew Hill, Eddie Khan, Richard Davis. [Who’s the drummer?  You know.] This is a piece called “Wailing Wall.”  What was getting me was, it wasn’t… The piano wasn’t as eccentric as I’m used to with Andrew Hill — or say as personal — at first.  But then he found that space that sort of gets into his area of…that brings out his personality.  The bowed bass was with Richard Davis, and that was excellent, excellent, excellent.  And Eddie Khan… They both had deep bass sounds, really thick sounds, and I particularly like that on the bass.  That was a perfect vehicle for two basses, with that piano sort of backdrop.  I’m not sure who the drummer was.  The drummer was double-timing.  I’m not sure who that was.  Because it was mostly cymbal.  Joe Chambers, Tony Williams… I’m just guessing who was on the record. [That was Roy Haynes.] Roy Haynes, okay.  He’s not a usual sort of person on these records.  Because he didn’t do that many with Andrew. [Well, he did Black Fire, too.] Well, I enjoyed that very much also.  I would give that 4 stars.

3.  Fred Hopkins & Deidre Murray, “Dedicated To Ronnie Boykins,” Firestorm (Victo, 1992). [4-1/2 stars]

Barre Phillips.  No?  I’ve heard this bassist before.  I’ve heard this sound before.  Was this recorded in a church?  It’s got that open sound. [THEN] It’s got that cello and bass.  [LATER]  It’s not Deidre Murray… [LATER] I’m going to take a guess.  I’m not really sure.  This isn’t Deidre Murray and Fred Hopkins.  Oh, it is?  Usually I can spot Deidre Murray like that. [It’s Fred’s piece.] It’s Fred’s piece, okay.  For lack of better terms, it sounded a bit more Classical, or even European-sounding than what they usually do.  But everything they do has always been top-notch.  I think Fred’s passing was so unfortunate, because he was great.  I would give that 4½ stars.  That was very-very-very nice.  I guess sometimes when the sound is right in front of you, it’s like looking for something and then because it’s right there you don’t see it. [They did it at East Side Sound.) That was a very nice sound.

4.  Ron Carter,  “Laverne Walk”, Piccolo (Milestone, 1977/1999). [3-1/2 stars] (Carter, piccolo bass; Buster Williams, bass; Kenny Barron, piano; Ben Riley, drums; Oscar Pettiford, composer)

Right off I can tell that they’re having fun.  What often happens when two bassists get together, there’s like a thing where bass players can play together without being in competition, and they sort of really know how to complement each other. But I’ve got to figure out who this is. [LATER] That slide is like a Ray Brown thing, but the tone doesn’t really sound like Ray Brown the way it’s recorded.  But those slides… [LATER] This bass player, John Clayton.  [ANOTHER MINUTE] They were really interwoven in there, playing in the same register sometimes, and except for a few slides I could not distinguish who was who. [Were they playing the same instrument?] Well, it’s hard to tell.  Because nowadays, a lot of bassists play in the upper register, miked through a pickup.  So I really couldn’t hear the acoustic sound of the bass too well on that one. [Did you know the tune?] I don’t know the tune.  But I thought the performance of it and the spirit with which they were playing was good.  They weren’t trying to be political or revolutionary on that one!  They were just trying to get a groove and make something happen. [LATER] When I heard the left-hand skip I thought of Ron Carter, and I also thought of Buster Williams, but I couldn’t clearly distinguish them.  What I’d say about Ron Carter in general is that he’s been one of the foundations for sort of post Paul Chambers bass playing, walking bass lines — he’s influenced a lot of people there.  Also, his choice of notes and his placement of notes in certain spots, not playing a lot of notes.  And also keeping a bass sound on his bass, so to speak.  That one I would give 3-1/2 stars.  I think that they weren’t necessarily getting to any musical essences there, but it was a good performance of jazz, and interplay between two basses.  I’m sure if I was in the room and watching this live, it would really be a lot more present and happening than listening to it on a CD.  I think you lose a lot when you’re listening to two basses on CD.

5.  Ray Brown,  “Tricotism,”  Much In Common (Verve, 1962/1996) [5 stars] (with orchestra, arr. Ernie Wilkins;  Oscar pettiford, composer)

Oh, they said who it was at the end of the tune, but to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have said Ray Brown.  I didn’t hear any particular Ray Brown licks there, or I guess I never heard Ray Brown in that particular context.  That was very-very-very modern type of playing, and I always thought of him as a slower type thinker.  I think in bassists you have people who sort of play fast, and then you have other bassists who really dig into the note and play slower.  I always thought of him as someone who had a deeper, more soulful type of feeling when he plays.  Also sometimes you get bass amnesia; everything blends into one.  But that was an excellent performance.  I’d give that 5 stars. [Did you know the tune?] I didn’t know the tune.  When I was listening to it, I started to say, “Is that Oscar Pettiford?”  That’s the connection there.  I thought maybe he was trying to reflect on Oscar Pettiford, because it wasn’t in the area that I associate with Ray Brown necessarily.

6.  Oscar Pettiford, “Stardust,” Vienna Blues: The Complete Session (Black Lion, 1959/1990) [3½ stars] (Oscar Pettiford, bass; Attila Zoller, guitar; Jimmy Pratt, drums; Hoagy Carmichael, composer)

Those stops.  I don’t know who this is.  It’s hard to tell when they don’t play any wrong notes! [LATER, AT 5:30] I’m not sure who this is.  But they’re playing all the right notes!  It’s a nice ballad.  But I think sometimes you need some off-notes or off-sounds to give the music a little edge.  I think he’s putting some in now with those strums, but… [LATER] This is Oscar Pettiford. [As a young player, would you study Oscar Pettiford or Ray Brown?] Not really.  That was a little bit before my time.  I was studying stuff that had happened the last ten years rather than the last twenty years.  But let me just say that that performance… I do have an affection for Oscar Pettiford, but I only could give that 3-1/2 stars.  To me it was just functional.  It was nice, but it didn’t really go over the top too much.

7.  Bill Dixon-Alan Silva, “Summer Song/Two/Evening,” Bill Dixon In Italy: Vol. 2 (Black Saint, 1980) (dixon, trumpet, composer; Silva, bass)

Alan Silva and Bill Dixon.  In this performance, Alan is not playing any… His phrases are symmetrical but within their own space.  Then he’s putting an edge on the sound where you would least expect it, while simultaneously underpinning the trumpet but also creating his own sort of road that the trumpet is reacting off of.  Bill is one of the masters at playing trumpet lines in this slower tempo, just creating layers and layers of sound built on top of each other in this continuous ballad that has… It’s like trees.  It’s very in synch with Nature.  If you could put a trumpet in a tree and blow the wind through it, that’s what Bill sounds like.  Then Alan underneath him sounds like… If Mother Nature could play the bass, that’s what it would sound like.  I would give this 5 stars.  It’s excellent.

8.  Evan Parker (soprano saxophone) & Barry Guy (bass) “Slope,” Obliquities (Maya, 1994).

Oh my God. [LATER] Sometimes you can’t tell if it’s a violin, cello or bass just yet.  Because the bass players nowadays play in the violin range, they play in the cello range, and when you have more than one player it’s hard to tell, but I do hear a cello in there. [NO] A violin. [NO] Bass!  That’s what I’m saying.  You can’t… I’m trying to figure out who the saxophone player is.  Very nice.  Very nice colors and textures.  But I don’t hear any personal codes yet from the string section that I can recognize. [LATER] To be able to hear any musician and know who it is, you have to hear them numerous times. [You’ve played next to this guy.] [LISTENS] I’m reluctant to say who the saxophone player is, because if I say the wrong person I’ll get in big trouble.  [Who do you think it is?  You’re probably already in trouble.] [SILENT] Oh, man, never mind! [LAUGHS] Is this Evan Parker? [4½ minutes] And Barry Guy. [BREAK] Is there a cello in here, or is it just duo?  It’s a duo?  Barry sounds like two basses there, because he plays so fast that he looks like two basses.  It’s like watching a sped-up movie, because he can go up to the top and down to the bottom.  But this is a very nice performance.  I would give this 4-1/2 stars.

9.  Paul Chambers. “The P.C. Blues” Red’s Blues (Prestige, 1998). (Paul Chambers, bass, composer; Red Garland, piano; Arthur Taylor, drums)

It’s a blues.  And they’re playing in 4/4 time, the drummer is keeping the time.  Let’s see what happens now.  Nice!  These are authentic players.  Deep bass work.  I like the idea of simplicity in the bass work and the tone.  Very nice tone, very nice time.  In a piece like this you don’t really have to go crazy or anything, just keep it basic and let your tone and time be the spokesmen.  At this point I don’t hear who the bassist is.  I have to listen a little bit more. [BREAK] Very solid.  It’s somebody that sounds like they’re in the school… [DURING SOLO] This is Paul Chambers.  Because he’s bowing on nylon strings and it’s a little raspy.  But the time and the tone were very sweet.  I’d give this 4-1/2 stars. [Do you know who the pianist was?] That was Wynton Kelly?  I’m not… Those guys were the creators of their genre in music.  So it’s not just authentic; it is the real thing.

10. George Mraz, “Mr. Pastorius,” Bottom Lines (Milestone, 1997) (Mraz, bass; Cyrus Chestnut, piano, synthesizer; Al Foster, drums)

From just initially hearing this… Now, this is an electric bass or acoustic bass? [Acoustic bass with a synth.] Well, the sound is a little dry, and no one seems to be vibrating their instruments acoustically.  I don’t really hear it.  That sort of takes down the usefulness of the music for me to a point.  It’s nice for what it is, but for me it doesn’t have enough bite.  They seem to be proficient at what they’re doing, but it’s just a matter of if you have a particular taste and like what they’re doing.  So I don’t know who this is.  But the way it’s recorded, the lead instrument sounds a little electronic.  I’m not even sure what instrument it is.  I mean, I would say that the music isn’t… It sounds a bit like a soundtrack, and I’d say it basically isn’t vibrating enough for me to do the nervous system any good.  So it may be harsh, but I have to give this 2-1/2 stars. [LATER] Now that you’re telling me who this is:  I’m familiar with George Mraz, from Czechoslovakia, and he is an excellent bassist, and he can produce excellent music.  I just think it was hidden in the arrangement of that particular song.  To me, if it’s acoustic bass, the wood has got to vibrate to get the sound.  That’s what it’s set up to do.

11. Charlie Haden (w/ Paul Bley & Paul Motian), “Blues For Josh,” Memoirs (Black Saint, 1990).

It sounds like Charlie Haden, who is a bassist who I guess gets recognized immediately by a lot of people.  It’s like people who have a more individual voice. Like when we hear Ted Panken on the radio, we recognize that it’s him immediately!  He’s from the Ozarks, and he’s got this country-folk thing happening in his bass playing that always really speaks, and he’s got a feel for what he’s doing that’s in his own time zone.  He’s not trying to play like the classic bass players, so to speak.  That’s what you really have to do in music.  You have to try to find your own way of playing time, or not playing time, or playing music.  That’s sort of the goal.  Because everyone’s got their own feeling inside.  I think your personality can come out when you discover what’s you.  That’s one of the things that Charlie Haden has.  So that’s him on bass.  That’s Paul Motian on drums.  And Geri Allen?  Paul Bley.  Well, Paul Bley has his own language on the piano.  So this again is a classic trio that… They’ve been making music together for years.  That gives you some stars right there, for being able to stay alive in the Jazz Business for all those years — you can give some credit just for that.  That doesn’t mean that every performance you give is wonderful, but I think this is a very nice piece of music.  So I would give that 4 stars.

12. Glen Moore, “Jade Visions,” Dragonetti’s Dream (Intuition, 1995).

That’s a Scott LaFaro composition. [AFTER LISTENING TO THE WHOLE PIECE]  That’s a bass player from the West Coast. [Yes.] David Friesen. [No.  Why do you say it’s from the West Coast?] Because it’s big tree sound music, and it sounds folksy.  It reminded me a little bit of the bass player David Friesen, but if it’s not him, then I don’t know who that was. [LATER] Oh, that’s Glen Moore.  He’s the other guy whose name would come up, because he’s got an  open, tree-like sound.  I used to listen to him when he played with this group called Oregon.  They did all these concerts at WBAI, the Free Music Store.  He played the composition straight, and it was just the sound…the bass was ringing.  That was a very good recorded sound.  It really reminded me of playing out in the forest in the morning.  Because there’s certain music that’s just for particular times of the day, and if you listen to it the wrong time of the day you’d have a totally wrong impression of it.  Like, if we were walking through a forest and we heard the sound of his bass, it would be magnificent.  But if you’re in a smoky nightclub that particular music would be almost too majestic for a place like that.  That was very meditative.  4 stars.  That was very nice.

13. Dave Holland, “Bedouin,” Points of View (ECM, 1998). (Dave Holland, bass, composer; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Steve Wilson, soprano saxophone; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Billy Kilson, drums).

He’s a slider.  He slides like guitar players and sitar players.  …younger players, and this was recorded in the ’80s or ’90s.  The way the composition is laid out and the rhythms that the horns are playing and the way the beat… It almost has a Hip-Hop feel.  Nice trombone player. [BREAK] I don’t know who this is.  I’d just be guessing.  Because they’re musicians I usually wouldn’t…don’t listen to.  Not because I would refuse to listen to them.  Just that as you become older in this field of music… A lot of people keep up with what’s going on, and then a lot of people just listen to the same records they have in their cabinet!  So I don’t know if I ever have actually purchased a CD in the ’90s! [Do you have any sense who the bass player is?  He had a solo at the top.] Well, he seems to be very flexible.  He’s someone that might also play electric bass. [Once upon a time.] Once upon a time.  [LATER] Oh, this is Dave Holland.  So that’s Robin Eubanks.  He’s a nice trombone player.  Dave Holland has a singing sound on his instrument, and you usually can tell who it is by his phrasing and his sound.  But I didn’t really hear that.  This was more condensed or in the ensemble.  That was very tricky.  I would give that 3-1/2 stars.  Because again, it was nice, but it didn’t have any particular special message to me.  But it was a nice tune, and nicely executed.  Because I’ve heard another cut on this record which I actually liked a lot more than this.  I guess that one was a bit more dynamic and exciting.  This was a groove piece.

14. Malachi Favors/Roscoe Mitchell, “Keep on Keeping On,” Hey, Donald (Delmark, 1997) (Malachi Favors, bass, composer; Roscoe Mitchell, alto saxophone)

That’s Malachi Favors and Roscoe Mitchell playing a duet.  Roscoe goes from one end of the sound spectrum to the other.  He has his very open forms; he has his folk feeling, his simple song feelings.  That was a hymn almost. [It was Malachi Favors’ tune.] Okay.  Malachi is one of the all-time masters of the bass.  If he had played pizzicato…I could really-really-really recognize him pizzicato.  But he’s also got this nice, deep, dry sound playing arco. For being Malachi’s tune, I’d give that 5 stars.

15. Mark Helias, “Semaphore,” Open Loose (Koch, 1998) (Helias, bass, composer; Ellery Eskelin, tenor saxophone; Tom Rainey, drums)

Is it three or four people? [AT 2 MINUTES] In this short period of time, the bassist has gone into three or four different areas.  He has a very strong sound and a very good sense of timing. [PONDERS] David Murray on saxophone?  No.  Is this an American band? [It’s a New York band.] I like it a lot.  Everyone’s got a strong sound.  I hear a breathiness in the saxophone player.  That’s why I mentioned David, or even… It’s not hard like Archie Shepp; it’s a lighter sound. [Any idea who the bass player is?] I’m not sure.  Is this Mark… Which Mark? [LATER] Mark Dresser?  No.  It’s Mark Helias!  See, I’ve never heard his band.  So this is Ellery Eskelin and Tom Rainey.  I played a duo a couple of weeks ago with Ellery Eskelin and he does have that sound.  But I’ve never heard Mark Helias’ own bands.  I thought he had more than a trio.  This is very nice.  They got their own space happening.  I’m going to give this the full 5 stars.  Mark Dresser also has an excellent band which I just heard which has an excellent saxophone player and drummer, but it was a little different than this.  This is nice.  They’re getting some nice colors and textures.  When you don’t have a piano in the way, the bass can really guide the group and underpin everything and move things around.  And this is Open-Loose!  Very nice.
All bass players write their own music.  I wonder why that is.


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Paul Motian & Steve Nelson

Not saying I’ll make it (the best laid plans and all that), but it’s my intention to go to the Village Vanguard this evening to hear the final night of  Paul Motian’s week-long MJQ homage with Steve Nelson, Craig Taborn and Thomas Morgan. I’m very curious about this gig. This collection of personalities can play it straight or deconstruct – what will they do? With no disrespect to any other vibraphonist on the scene, Steve Nelson is my favorite on the instrument amongst a cohort of equals — everything is taste, after all. Comparing him to Joe Locke or Bobby Hutcherson or Gary Burton, or Stefon Harris (wunderkind Warren Wolf is getting there, and Tyler Blanton…and let’s not get into an hierarchical name game anyway, or I might get a mallet upside my head) is an endeavor about as useful it was for Robert Friedlander and I when, during games of baseball card war in the mid ’60s, we’d fight over whether Willie Mays trumped Hank Aaron or Roberto Clemente or Frank Robinson. Steve plays with such freshness in so many contexts, and his snaky rhythmic feel  is singular. So for my first post, I’ll  paste below a piece I wrote about Steve for DownBeat in 2007 that never made it into print. Now, this is a penultimate final draft, not the FINAL-final draft, and I would have worked more on the ending. But anyway, here it is.

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“The next young cat is going to play inside, outside, jazz, classical, play the blues, be a good reader, play with everybody—a total command,” said vibraphonist Steve Nelson last October, reflecting on the future of his instrument. “It might be a she, I don’t know. But somebody is going to take the vibraphone to a different level.”

More than a few distinguished members of Nelson’s peer group opine that although Nelson, 53, is neither a serial poll-winner nor a frequent leader of sessions, he himself is the most completely realized and original performer on the vibraphone and marimba to emerge in the wake of ’50s and ’60s pioneers like Milt Jackson, Cal Tjader, Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Burton, Walt Dickerson, and Cal Tjader. One such is Dave Holland, Nelson’s employer since 1996, with whom Nelson was preparing to embark to Asia and Australia for two weeks of gigs.

“I’ve always looked for players who are very deeply rooted in the tradition, who can move the tradition into new, contemporary areas, and Steve is one of those people,” Holland said. “The reason I use a vibraphone in my quintet and big band is because he exists. He’s an original thinker who comes to conclusions one wouldn’t expect, and he’s used our compositions as a vehicle to break new ground for the instrument.”

Upon his return, Nelson would enter Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a week with Wingspan, pianist Mulgrew Miller’s sextet, adding another chapter to a two-decade tenure with the band. Asked to describe Nelson’s qualities, Miller was effusive. “Steve has no limitations,” he remarked. “I can write just about anything, and he’ll make it sound beautiful. He’s definitely a swinger, but even more important is his creative fire. Like Kenny Garrett, he was already an individualist early on; they played like they were old souls already.”

Joining A-team bass-drum tandem Peter Washington and Lewis Nash, Miller plays piano on Sound-Effects [High Note], an inexorably propulsive, blues-tinged eight-tune recital that is Nelson’s first leader date since 1999. The repertoire, recorded over the course of an evening and realized mostly as first takes, includes three Nelson originals and five jazz standards, including “Night Mist Blues,” by Ahmad Jamal,” “Up Jumped Spring,” by Freddie Hubbard, and “Arioso” by the late James Williams, another frequent Nelson partner and employer throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Others who recruited Nelson for record dates or retained him for consequential tours of duty during those years include Kirk Lightsey, George Shearing, Kenny Barron, Donald Brown, Geoff Keezer, David “Fathead” Newman, and Nash.

“It was happening from the first beat,” Nash recalled of the session, which could stand as a contemporary paradigm of 21st century hardcore jazz aesthetics. “It expresses how Steve felt right then. He could easily make a record of very adventurous, modern things which are pushing the envelope in various ways, but a musician like him doesn’t feel he HAS to do that. He can go into the studio and play how he wants to play.”

“It’s a matter of the highest difficulty to play those tempos and get that kind of flow and phrasing and interplay and sound, to make the vibraphone breathe and sustain that good, swinging groove,” Nelson said in response to a comment that perhaps, given the opportunity to conduct a few pre-studio rehearsals, he might have recorded the “adventurous, modern things” to which Nash referred. “It’s not as basic as some might think. Milt Jackson did it very well, but very few people have done it, including myself. I’m trying to get to it.”|

Nelson’s protests to the contrary, his colleagues are emphatic that the 53-year-old vibraphonist-marimbist has “it” in abundance. “Steve is one of the great improvisers I’ve played with in the sense of taking chances and breaking new ground,” Holland stated over the phone from Japan. “I’ve played with him night after night, year after year, and he never fails to surprise me. Last night, for example, he did something I’ve never heard him do before, which was to use a very fast tremolo and play the voicings percussively around the rhythms that [drummer] Nate Smith was playing, which created an amazing effect. He finds so many different ways to create tonal textures with mallet combinations—we all turn our heads sideways to see the voicings he’s playing, because we can feel them. He has roots in the blues which always seem to come through somewhere, no matter what we’re playing, and he grasps all the great traditions of accompaniment through having played with so many of the great piano players.”

“I almost put him in another category than other musicians I play with,” said Chris Potter, Nelson’s bandmate with Dave Holland since 1997. “I don’t know where he channels from, or how he conceptualizes all this stuff, but I’ve played countless gigs with Steve, and I never know what he’s going to play. He’ll go along normally, then turn completely left. Or not. You just don’t know. It’s true improvisation, reacting to some inner dictates that he has access to.”

“He’s a wonderfully economical player who can say a lot with very little,” said Smith. “He’s a very abstract thinker in his comping, his rhythmic responses to odd meters, but it all makes sense, and he paints beautiful pictures with the soft and beautiful tunes he brings to the band. They say still waters run deep, and he’s the perfect example of that saying.”

The still waters metaphor also applies to Nelson’s gestural vocabulary—he coils over the keyboard, jabbing and weaving with an economy of moves to create asynchronous punctuations that bring to mind Thelonious Monk’s pouncing comp, or Muhammad’s Ali’s motto, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” “The only thing that touches the vibraphone when you’re playing is one little piece of your foot, so you use all the wide space around you,” Nelson explained.

Nelson brings to bear a full complement of rhythmic acumen on Stompin’ at the Savoy and It Don’t Mean A Thing [M&I], both inventive Nash-led trio dates for the Japanese market on which Peter Washington plays bass. “Steve understands that the vibes are melodic as well as percussive,” Nash remarks. “He builds ideas not only harmonically or linearly, but through dynamics—he knows when to strike the bar to make it speak in a certain way. He double-times and plays across the barline; the shapes of his lines give the illusion that you’re hearing polyrhythms, because his rhythm fits on top of the primary pulse, which creates a tension. He’s extremely knowledgeable about chord structure and harmonic theory, which allows him to be free even on the most basic harmonic structures. He makes even the most tried-and-true songs sound fresh. But when he plays in situations with different meters and uncharacteristic harmonies, or vamps and ostinatos over one harmonic framework, he makes that work, too.”

The sum result, stated Keezer, who deployed Nelson on four of his ‘90s dates, is “a completely original voice—home-made might be the word. I don’t hear him coming heavily out of Milt Jackson or Bobby Hutcherson, or any other vibraphonist, but more taking that postmodern language that Woody Shaw, Mulgrew, and Kenny Garrett use, and translating it onto the vibes. His free time sense is the quality I hear now in Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter, which suggests that they could play anything at any time and it would sound right. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s a mark of mastery in playing.”


There are reasons why Nelson, a virtuoso musician who has made consequential contributions both to the development of speculative improvising and the tradition, is less visible to the broader jazz audience than his talent warrants. For one thing, as Nash comments, “People see with their eyes, but they don’t hear with them, and you don’t necessarily match Steve’s reticence and understated personality with this kind of musicianship. He’s not jumping up and turning somersaults and flips.”

Another reason is timing. Like Bobby Watson, Brian Lynch, Fred Hersch, Steve Coleman, Joe Locke, and David Hazeltine, all tradition-to-the-future virtuosos born in the middle to late ‘50s, Nelson cut his hardcore jazz teeth with local mentors on his home-town’s indigenous jazz scene. For Nelson, out of Pittsburgh, this occurred at the cusp of the plugged-in ‘70s, with such local heros as drummers Roger Humphries, Joe Harris, and J.C. Moses, trumpeter Tommy Turrentine, saxophonists Eric Kloss, Nathan Davis, and Kenny Fisher, guitarist Jerry Byrd, and Nelson’s direct influence, a steelworker named George A. Monroe who played vibraphone in the Milt Jackson style.

“The guys in Pittsburgh were great musicians, and I could use everything they taught me when I went to college,” Nelson recalled. “Mr. Monroe was the father of my high school buddy. I heard him play one day, and I fell in love with the sound of the vibes. He started teaching me, and thought I had some talent, so he kept on teaching me. Taught me things on piano that I could copy directly—lines and so on—and a lot of tunes. Coming up in Pittsburgh, you learned your standards, and I still enjoy playing them.”

“Steve was an amazing younger player, perhaps the brightest student I ever had,” recalled Kenny Barron, who taught Nelson at Rutgers, where he earned the nickname “absent-minded professor,” during the ‘70s. “He came to Rutgers being able to play—he knew all my tunes, and I started using him in my group.”

“We were trying to be dedicated, but it was a difficult time to maintain your focus,” Nelson recalled. “But as we moved along, we got caught in the whole Young Lions thing of the early ‘80s—we weren’t older, established guys either at the time, and we never really got a chance to expand as leaders and get our names pushed out there.”

In a certain sense, Nelson’s versatility and open attitude, his dedication to serving the dictates of the moment without concern for their “progressive” or “conservative” implication, may also work against his recognition quotient in a climate when complexity and genre coalescence are in high regard.

“It wouldn’t be that different,” Nelson said in response to an observation that, given several preparatory gigs and rehearsals, Sound-Effects might have explored some different areas. “I might write a 12-bar blues with different harmonies and extensions, but it would still be a nice, medium tempo blues. I think the most important thing you can do is to play what you love. If that happens to be ultra-modern or ragtime, or something in between, that’s great. But if it’s from your heart and it’s honest, then you’re contributing to the music. Herbie Hancock was always one of my favorite musicians, because if you put him in a blues band, or a funk band, or a straight-ahead band, he’ll play the heck out of all of them. A really good musician can contribute, no matter where they go.

“When I joined Dave, I was starting to think about the unique qualities of the vibraphone. Rather than transfer piano chords or guitar chords to the vibes, what intervals can I create? How can I space things to exploit the vibraphone as a percussive instrument? On piano, you have all 10 fingers. The shape of the vibraphone keyboard gives you different intervallic ideas; with the four mallets, you can get different ways to voice chords—I guess you could call them dissonant—that you might not otherwise think of. Those intervals allow you to use space more effectively than with other instruments. I can hit a chord, and let it ring out over the band, which leaves a lot of air for the drums, with their advanced rhythmic concept, to respond to, then the soloist puts something on top.”

Nelson added: “Although we’ve had a lot of impact on other bands playing in odd meters, to me, the real important aspect of Dave’s thing is the interplay and free flowing of ideas that his structures encourage.”

He recalled an early 2007 engagement with Kirk Lightsey at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard that provided an opportunities for conversation in notes and tones. “We played ‘Temptation,’ which contained wide-open areas between the melody for segues, and we had to listen hard,” he said. “Now, Kirk has a different tone and touch on the piano than Mulgrew Miller does, but I don’t make conscious adjustments for either of them. Now, with George Shearing, the concept was the sound of the band, rather than interplay. You’re playing at a such a soft dynamic level with the guitar and piano, that you’re inside each other’s sound—it’s like a spiritual happening. Truth is, I loved it. With any musician, if you play what you hear, it magically works. If you have the basic building blocks of musicianship together, you’ll be able to play with anybody.”

Which provoked a final question on this ideal sideman’s future plans.

“It’s becoming more important to me to be a leader, because you develop your own ideas, and want to put them out there,” he responded. “But the truth is that learning how to play that instrument is my central focus. Not many of us play vibraphone. There aren’t a lot of method books to go through. You wind up trying to play like saxophone or trumpet, or do other things that people ask, but I don’t know that we always think so much about how to create a language and a sound for the vibraphone itself. If I ever figure it out, I’ll write a book!”


Filed under DownBeat, Drummer, Paul Motian, Steve Nelson