Pittsburgh is well known for its expatriate jazz musicians who expanded the vocabulary of instruments like the drums (Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke) and piano (Mary Lou Williams, Earl "Fatha" Hines), to name a few. Less common is the vibraphone, but one of the more highly regarded players of the instrument is East Liberty native Steve Nelson.
Originally inspired by Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Nelson came under the spell of Bobby Hutcherson after the latter broke the mold on Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch. On that record, instead of just sounding slick or dreamy, Hutcherson's attack revealed the instrument's potential for loud metallic.
Nelson's resume cuts across a wide range of musicians and styles; his first break came when he joined guitarist Grant Green in the early '70s. Leaving Pittsburgh, he went on to play with numerous legends (David "Fathead" Newman, Jackie McLean) and receive both undergrad and master's degrees from Rutgers University.
One of the vibist's most prominent sideman gigs came when he joined bassist Dave Holland in the mid-'90s. Holland's quintet isn't grounded by a pianist, which leaves Nelson in a position somewhere between a chordal instrument and third voice of the frontline with saxophone and trombone. Coupled with the bassist's love of odd time signatures, the vibes had never sounded so challenged. "In Dave's band," Nelson told All About Jazz, "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."
If Nelson isn't widely known as a performer, it's because his work as a sideman greatly outweighs his output as a leader and composer. While drawing on the same firepower of Holland's group, Nelson's albums display a propensity to play things in a more straight direction. 2007's Sound-Effect includes pianist Mulgrew Miller, an impressive leader in his own right and a longtime friend who also joins him for a concert this Saturday at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, presented by the Kente Arts Alliance.
"From the first time that we played together it was magic, man," Nelson says of Miller. "We synced so perfectly that I knew that we were going to be playing together for a long time."
The Steve Nelson Quartet. 8 p.m. Sat., Dec. 5. Kelly Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. $20 ($25 at the door/$15 seniors/$10 students with ID). 412-322-0292 or www.kelly-strayhorn.org