Alva Nelson is a multifaceted musician who performs and creates music that is diverse, sophisticated and exhilarating. As a producer his credits include two recent projects for Ms. Dorothy Leigh. Alva wrote three songs for Ms. Leigh’s A Second Chance (Whitley Productions, Inc.), a compilation of 10 original songs, all arranged for Nelson’s 17-piece orchestra. In stark contrast, Intimate Moments is a beautiful collection of jazz standards featuring Nelson’s piano and Leigh’s vocals in 10 duets.
Alva Nelson has released two recordings as a jazz pianist/composer, African Suite (Pyramyd Records) and Soul Eyes (Kilosi Keys Music), both CDs showcasing Nelson’s composing skills. Alva produced Juanita Flemings’ Redeemed (BAKA Records), which is a gospel/jazz hybrid highlighting Ms. Fleming’s songwriting ability. Ms. Fleming also contributed five songs to Dorothy Leigh’s A Second Chance. Mr. Nelson’s arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Send One Your Love” on Robin Eubanks’ Karma (Polydor Records), and the single, “Another Chance to Give” by Genie Swinson (for the New York City Organ Donor Foundation) are other examples of Alva Nelson’s musical creativity.
As a sideman, Nelson has recorded with Lonnie Plaxico, Charley Gerard, Bubbha Thomas & the Lightmen, and others. As a pianist, he has performed with Lightnin’ Hopkins, Kirk Whalum, David “Fathead” Newman, Arnett Cobb, Tramaine Hawkins, Phyllis Hyman, Regina Belle, and Eddie Harris, Martha Wash, The Chantells, and Chuck Jackson to name just a few.
From the beginning music had a strong spiritual pull on Nelson. The son of a Pentecostal minister, he was exposed to music at an early age where his dad had a profound impact: “Man, he would be in the pulpit, preaching the gospel, and suddenly he’d rush back into his study, and run back out, still preaching, with his bass fiddle!” However, as a youth, Nelson avoided playing in church. He preferred the music of James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Earth, Wind & Fire, not to mention Cannonball Adderley and Oscar Peterson.
Pursuing jazz seriously, Nelson was mentored by his high school teacher, the renowned Conrad O. Johnson at Houston’s Kashmere High School. Here, he studied piano and saxophone while traveling and recording with the school’s highly successful Kashmere Stage Band (voted Best High School Jazz Band in the Nation in 1972). You can find recordings of this stellar high school aggregation in Texas Thunder Soul (Now Again Records) on the internet.
Set on a career in music, Nelson enrolled in Sam Houston State University, where he won a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz/Study Fellowship to study with saxophonist Billy Harper in New York City (he’d receive a second NEA Fellowship to study in LA with flautist Hubert Laws several years later). It is not without coincidence that both of these masters are natives of Houston. Nelson went onto graduate studies at Texas Southern University, where he won the Outstanding Pianist Award at the Notre Dame Intercollegiate Jazz Festival.
Moving to New York in 1982, Nelson received his first of three Meet the Composer Grants. He won first place in the Composers’ Guild Composition Contest with “Synonymous Dichotomy” (’83), “Buster’s Bounce” (’85), and “Tranquil Jubilation (’88). Alva was selected as a semifinalist in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, and throughout the 1990s he performed, arranged, and orchestrated music for the Boys Choir of Harlem, including engagements at Carnegie Hall and Alice Tully Hall with Wynton Marsalis and Kathleen Battle; with Hubert Laws and the St. Luke’s Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta. His cutting-edge arrangement of “Amazing Grace” for the BCH was featured on the Bill Moyers PBS Special Amazing Grace.
During this period, Nelson also formed the Pyramyd Dance Theatre, dedicated to exploring the music and dance of West Africa, and was awarded his third grant from Meet the Composer in support of his Afrykhan Khaneckshun Orchestra; presented his “West Afrykhan Sweet” at the Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors Festival.
Alva has been musical director (and/or assistant musical director) for regional theatre productions including Ain’t Misbehavin’, Sam Cooke, Forever Mr. Soul, Violet, A Brief History of White Music, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, …Love, Langston, If This Hat Could Talk, Black Broadway, and other shows as a pit musician.
Over the years, after countless performances with practically every type of ensemble, music is still an extremely powerful spiritual force in Nelson’s life. “I am honored in that I feel as though I was chosen by this force to share love, spread joy, inspire hope, and motivate faith with all who are open to my conversation.” And from everything we’ve heard so far, there will certainly be quite a few people who will want to engage in this conversation.