They call it a Philly Tip," says master drummer
Alan Nelson, reflecting on his history and musical roots. "It's a certain kind of swing -- a certain
sound that players seem to have that come out
of this region."
"The Philadelphian was actually born in
Camden, New Jersey. But since his arrival as
a young boy to the City of Brotherly Love, he's
continued to follow in the footsteps of so many
jazz greats like John Coltrane, the Heath Brothers, Jimmy Garrison and countless others.
But if you think you can typecast Nelson in
regional terms-guess again. Since the seventies the percussion man has made so many
hundreds of club dates and concerts in New
York City with people like James Moody,
Shirley Scott and Sonny Stitt, that one might have to invent a new category for
him like "Philly Yorker." "I probably know every pot hole and bump on the Jersey
Turnpike," Nelson grins, "I've made the journey so many times." The journey to
the world of jazz drumming started for Nelson at the age of eight. He recalls: "I
began in music as a tap dancer and then went on to African dance. The only reason I stopped was because all the male teachers were gay and back then the
negative pressure from my peers kind of got to me and made me stop."
The restless ex-African dancer went on to play the hand drums for about six years.
At the age of sixteen, friend and mentor Norman Conners encouraged the teenager
to switch over to trap drums. It was also at this phase in his life that he started to
soak up the influences of the great jazz drummers like Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones
and most of all, Max Roach. "Max had a very melodic way of expressing himself,"
explains Nelson. "It was like he was playing a tune. It was very dynamic. '
Nelson's career took a dynamic turn in 1974. After gigging locally in and around
Philadelphia, he landed a summer job in New York with bassist Cecil McBee. It
was then that a maturing, confident Nelson would work with people like Hilton
Ruiz, George Adams and Onaje Allan Gumbs, thus securing his place in the
New York jazz hierarchy. It was also at this time that he began a twelve year
association with trumpeter Hannibal Marvin Peterson. The Peterson gig would
take the master drummer to all points on the globe and add a seasoning and a
sensitivity to his playing that has kept his services in demand for the better part
of two decades.
Saxophonists, pianists and bass players seek out Nelson for his intense energy
and hyper-sensitivity. Vocalists, on the other hand, want the Philadelphian on the
bandstand behind them for a different set of requisites. "Singers don't want the
drummer to get too much in the way," analyzes Nelson. "So my approach is just
to swing and be tasty. You have to put the dress on her," he chuckles, "and
maybe put the shoes on her too."
In January of 1998, Nelson got a call from his former band mate Michael
Cochrane. His old friend explained the concept behind Lines=of=Reason.
"Michael and I are like old rope dogs," smiles Nelson. "So when he called it felt
very comfortable. When I look back over jazz history, for me, it was the bands
that played together a lot that seemed to be saying the most."
"It's great when everybody contributes and everyone's relaxed because that adds
to a groove and spontaneity. I guess you could say it's like the whole thing adds
up to the sum of its parts."