JazzColumbus.com Interview Series: Joe Nelson

Next in our new series of interviews with some of Central Ohio’s finest jazz musicians is drummer Joe Nelson. Nelson is an accomplished performer in jazz, but also in rock, soul, and experimental settings. His resume includes playing with Center Trio, Hypnotide, Apocalypso, John Boerstler and the Sidewinders, the Phoenix Project and many more. Center Trio and Hypnotide are both in action this week, so keep reading for Nelson’s thoughtful answers to our questions and more info on his background and current projects:

When and why did you start playing music and jazz?

Joe Nelson (JN): I was raised in a house where music was as important as food. I remember one instance when I was about 5 – my dad was listening to Stevie Wonder. He called me over to where he was and he asked if I could keep the rhythm along with the music. He watched me tap on the couch for minute and said, “You’re going to be a good drummer some day.” After dilly-dallying on several instruments for several years, dad brought home a set of drums. He is a great drummer and played professionally around the Huntington, WV area doing lots of different jazz gigs including the Mel Gillespie big band during the 60’s. He showed me the basics and I was off on my own pretty much right away, playing to records mostly; rock, pop, R&B and stuff that was on the radio. I immersed myself in this music over the next 5 years, which were marked by obsessive phases that included Rush, Prince, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, punk rock, and hip-hop.
I attended Fort Hayes and the University of Cincinnati (summer program) during my last two years of high school and that’s when I feel in love with jazz. Dad’s extensive record collection of gave me plenty to listen to and study. Plus, Ft Hayes and UoC (in the summers) provided the opportunity to play jazz with other people on a daily basis.

Who are some of your main influences in your playing/performing?

JN: The biggest influence on me has been my father, Steve Nelson, who got me started, and my mom Anne Nelson for her support and turning me on to Beethoven.
To answer this good question, most would provide a similar list of inspired musicians. And indeed, all those usual suspects are well deserving of their stature in this art and have heavily influenced me as a person and player. If you don’t mind, I would like to take this opportunity to name some local musicians (mostly drummers) who have influenced me through lessons, working together or just by watching their genius in performance. They are Jim Castoe, Eric Paton, Jim Curlis, Tony McClung, Matt Wagner, Jim Rupp, Aaron Scott, Joe Ong, Wally Mitchel, Danny Aguiar, Cedric Easton, Sam Hooff, Vaughn Wiester, Kelly Delaveris, Maggie Green, and Lance Ellison. A downfall of lists like this is that they can never be complete. Aaron Quinn’s projects are always creative. Larry Marotta is one of the most prolific musicians in town. Derek DiCenzo is amazing. I’ve also been inspired by many of the younger musicians coming out of the OSU Jazz program like Maxwell Button, John Suntken, and some other players whose names I have yet to learn.

What is your fondest musical memory?

JN: Although you’ve asked for a single memory, there are a few that stick out in my mind and most of them were not in front of an audience. One such instance was at Caleb Hutslar’s house shortly after graduating high school. Caleb, Brian Hewett (bass), and I got together to play free jazz and it turned out to be one of the most magical moments of my life. Another was during a recording session where I got to spend a whole day composing and tracking percussion for a singer/song writer and it all just clicked so very well. I got into a zone where I could do no wrong. Another was at Dick’s Den with Brasileira. The circus was in town that night and the place was packed with circus performers and…well, it was magical too!

What are you listening to today? What’s on your playlist?

JN: Aditya Jayanthi recently gave me a 3-CD mix of Hermerto Pascoal that is messing me up big time. It’s a real red pill blue pill situation. My wife recently gifted me the new Replacements LP box set. Pat Metheny’s Offramp, Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, Art Pepper + Eleven, and Wynton Marsalis’ Standard Time Vol. 1 LPs get a lot of play at my house. Also ELO, Joni Mitchell, Outkast, Paul Simon, Black Flag, Stevie Wonder, The Descendants, and Elliot Smith. My neighbor just gave me a huge LP box set of Beethoven’s string quartets. I also love the way Ivan Moravec plays Chopin (esp. “Mazurka in C # Minor, Opus 50, No. 3”).
I would also like to give an open invitation to any one to make me an amazing mix CD. Anything goes. Certain mix tapes have changed my life. One of my favorites was from Derek. I love getting them. I love making them and promise to return the favor (I’m cassette capable).

What inspires you about the Columbus Jazz scene?

JN: Two things: the level of talent and musicianship, and our cooperative demeanor. I’ve lived and gigged in bigger cities (Washington, DC and a little in LA), have traveled extensively, and can empirically corroborate the fact that Columbus is one of the best (per capita) music towns in the world. We are stacked with talent and I am so grateful to have been blessed with many opportunities to play with tons of accomplished musicians. What’s more, most of the people involved in the scene are not miserable misanthropic jerks. There is no overwhelming air of exclusionary competitiveness.
As an example of my first point regarding talent: I’ve been working with John Boerstler who often picks tunes in that Dr. John/Professor Longhair style, which is a great learning experience for me. When we first started working together I found myself wanting to learn more about playing drums in this style. Around that time I went to Dick’s Den and who just happened to be playing that night? The great Reggie Jackson who plays drums in Dr. John’s band! Dr. John’s drummer lives in Columbus! A few years ago, I put together a tribute to Mose Allison. Who played bass on the gig? The great Roger Hines who has worked with Mose! It’s crazy that a town of this size has so many accomplished musicians. And we can play gigs with these people!! You can go to clubs and watch them perform for as little as $4! Or even for no cover charge!

What are you working on currently? Any new projects, exciting shows or releases?

JN: My main project is a band called Hypnotide. We play original innovative surf-fusion music and just released an LP called Landlocked. The band consists of Larry Marotta and Aaron Quinn on guitar (Aditya Jayanthi subs for Aaron whose relocation to New York often precludes his presence at Hypnotide gigs), Brett Burleson on bass and myself on drums. I must say, our album is really quite good. It’s a great record. A real Columbus gem.
I also played drums on and engineered most of the new Apocalypso CD called Pans Macabre. We had always performed as a trio with steel drums, bass, and drum set. After we recorded the basic tracks at Ted’s house (all live), the guys came in with all kinds of creative ideas: choral arrangements, keyboard parts, spoken word embellishments…I was so impressed with their creativity!
I’m quite proud to have been involved in both the Hypnotide and the Apocalypso releases which are among the best instrumental (non-jazz) releases to be birthed in this town. Seriously. I should say that, while the Hypnotide LP is not jazz in the classic sense, some of the compositions are heavily influenced by jazz in their harmonic structure and focus on improvisation. Plus there are several obscure film references in the song titles.
I also do a weekly church gig with Tony Bonardi on keys and Steve Perakis on bass. We play gigs around town under the name Center Trio. The church that employs us is called the Columbus Center for Spiritual Living and is very supportive of the arts and affords us the opportunity to work with a slew of very talented guest vocalists. One of these vocalists is an inspired singer/songwriter named Jesse Powers. Her music might be compared to a crossing of Joni Mitchell, Donavan, Regina Spektor, and Adele. Center Trio gigs often feature 2-3 vocalists (like Jesse) and sometimes the choir joins us, which gives it a rocket boost of awesome. It’s a real blast! People dance.
Honestly, my main personal focus right now is on becoming a better musician through intensive daily practice. In my practice, I’ve been working on technique with a focus on my non-dominant (left) hand. Inside every drummer’s less dominant hand, lies a universe of opportunity…for improvement. And I gotta say, with joyous humility, that my dominant (right) hand is pretty awesome. My left however is a study in character building. Bringing my left hand to the same level as my right is like trying to reconcile an estranged married couple. The long-term payoff will be totally worth the very hard work.

Where can local audiences see you play in the near future?

JN: Center Trio will perform with Jesse Powers at Brothers Drake Meadery on Wednesday, August 26 from 8 to 11pm.
Hypnotide (with Aaron) will host an LP release party at Dick’s Den on Friday, August 28th starting at 10pm. LPs (with a download card) may be purchased at the gig for $15. They may also be purchased at local record stores or online at www.hypnotide.bandcamp.com for the same price. These festivities will be accented by go-go dancers and a bubble machine. Yep, bubble machine.
I’m also looking forward to playing drums and percussion at Dick’s Den on Wednesday, October 28th with Steve Perakis, where the focus will be on Herbie Hancock’s funk music of the 70’s. I was raised on that stuff (Mike Clark, Harvey Mason, and Bill Summers are on my short list of musical heroes).

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