Steve Nelson: The Center of the Music

Vibraphonist Steve Nelson steps up his game as a bandleader

Photo of Steve Nelson

Despite his stature as one of today’s most revered jazz vibraphonists, Steve Nelson ‘s discography as a leader is criminally small. Still, it’s a potent one built on experience playing with a long list of jazz luminaries, including Kenny Barron, David “Fathead” Newman and, perhaps most significant, Dave Holland.

Along his journey from his hometown of Pittsburgh to New York City, Nelson crossed paths with another significant jazz figure, the late pianist, composer and bandleader Mulgrew Miller, who became his kindred spirit. Nelson salutes Miller on his charming new disc, Brothers Under the Sun (HighNote), on which he leads a crackling quartet featuring pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash through 10 compositions, six of which were penned by Miller. JT recently spoke to the vibraphonist, 63, about his friendship with his beloved collaborator and his own prolific yet under-celebrated career. –JOHN MURPH

 

JazzTimes: Try to explain the brilliance behind Mulgrew Miller’s artistry as a pianist and composer.

Steve Nelson: That’s a long odyssey. At the time of his passing, he was one of the most important [jazz pianists] on the scene because of his wealth of experience in the music. He had strong connections to the center of the music. He came along playing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and he played with Betty Carter, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Woody Shaw, Tony Williams and Ron Carter. Mulgrew brought all of that wealth of experience into his playing, composing and finally into having his own band.

The thing that really stood out for me was his honesty in music. As you go through Mulgrew’s career, you can hear that he was very gradually developing his own unique style. Some things became known as Mulgrew Miller-isms because of the way he would stretch harmonies.

Mulgrew Miller

Take me back to when you first met Mulgrew and how you two forged such a lasting musical kinship.

I was in college at Rutgers. There was a gentleman named William Fielder, who was a trumpet instructor. He knew Mulgrew quite well and brought him to the school. We played together, and from that time on we knew we had a great hookup. We had many of the same goals and ideas about taking the foundation of jazz and then advancing it.

How have you managed to build your voice on the foundation of jazz vibraphone?

When you start out playing an instrument, a lot of times you already have your own ideas about things and you have your own style. Then you come to New York and become influenced by so many people because you’re listening to everybody else’s playing. But eventually you go back to the things you were doing at first. I think that’s what happened to me.

Talk about growing up in Pittsburgh and how you got the music bug.

There was a guy in Pittsburgh who was a buddy of mine. His father, George A. Monroe, played the vibraphone. We were all hanging out in his basement. His vibes were down there, so he started playing them. It sounds like a fairy tale but it’s really no lie: The minute I heard him play, I knew right away what I wanted to do. And he saw how interested I was. Lo and behold, it turned out that I had some talent in that direction. Thank goodness, because I certainly didn’t have talent in any other direction.

He also taught me piano, which opened everything up for me. He taught me in a very hands-on type of way—like, “Put this finger here, then put this finger there; now play that chord.” That’s the kind of learning you cannot get in a classroom with 50 keyboards and a teacher in front of you.

I learned from all the older cats in Pittsburgh. I had wonderful Sundays of learning tunes, substitute chords and a whole lot more before I’d ever set foot in a music school. By the time I started college, I was already playing pretty well.

Are you a reluctant bandleader? If so, why?

I was a reluctant bandleader for a while because I enjoyed being a sideman. There’s so much you can learn from being a sideman. I have my own band now. It’s a responsibility that I had to take on, because there are not enough bands out there. A lot of the bands the young people are in are led by kids themselves, so they lose a connection to the center of the music. In a sense, me leading a band is a responsibility to teach someone else who had the same yearning that I once had. Hopefully, you’ll be hearing more new material coming out of my band during the next few years—at least a lot more than you heard in the past decade.

Read Bill Milkowski’s review of Sound-Effect album by Steve Nelson.