Nelson Riveros – Jazz Guitar Life Interview

A major influence in my musical life and more was the pianist Mike Longo who was Dizzy Gillespie’s musical director during the 60’s. I may not be playing if I had not connected with Mike. I was in a real dark place with my playing and on the fringe of quitting when a friend told Mike about me and he called me. I studied with Mike for 3 years and he got my act together…

Nelson Riveros

I first heard of Jazz Guitarist Nelson Riveros when he sent me a request to review his The Latin Side of Wes Montgomery which I found to be a wonderful imagining of Wes’s tunes in a Latin style. In this featured Jazz Guitar Life interview, Nelson talks about his Jazz Guitar beginnings, his studies with Remo Palmeri and Vic Juris, his friendship with Steve Khan and he offers some no-nonsense advice to beginning Jazz Guitarists. A great read indeed! Enjoy 🙂

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JGL: Thank you Nelson for taking the time to talk to Jazz Guitar Life. First off, if we can get into a little background about you that would be great. How old are you?

NR: Your very welcome. I’m 56 years old.

JGL: What geographical area do you reside in?

NR: I reside in Northern New Jersey about 10 minutes from the George Washington Bridge.

JGL: For those who may not know you, could you give us an elevator pitch of who Nelson Riveros is and then we’ll get into more detail as this interview unfolds.

NR: I’m Nelson Riveros, a guitarist and vocalist who plays mostly Jazz and Latin styles of music. I’m also a composer and teach guitar as well. I love all kinds of music and Listening to music is a big part of what I do. I have two recordings out as a leader.

JGL: At what age did you first start playing the guitar and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?

NR: I started playing guitar around the age of 14-15. I played Rock music first learning from the records and then started to play at parties, schools and then clubs. I was very into Pop and Rock radio at the time and loved all kinds of music.

At 16 I heard Al Dimeola while on vacation New Orleans then soon after Pat Metheny. But I didn’t really start learning Jazz until a 1-2 yrs later or so. Those two players were my first introduction to Jazz and Fusion guitar. Shortly after I heard Larry Carlton who was a huge influence. After this I got into other players like Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery through a very sought after teacher I took lessons from in Queens, NY named George Bien.

JGL: When coming up as a young player, did you attend a formal educational institution or are you self taught? Was there one – or more – particular moments that opened the flood gates so to speak as you went about learning this music?

NR: I started taking guitar lessons at a local music store. Then I saw an ad for this teacher George Bien that said he could teach you to play in the styles of all these different players. I was excited and started taking lessons with him. He was my first Jazz teacher. He really opened me up to this music and turned me on to all the right players. He prepared me to get into Berklee.

JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what were some of the things you did back then to make this choice work for you?

NR: Music was what I wanted to purse early on especially when I went to Berklee. I worked odd jobs and saved money to go there, and also to try to have the best guitar and equipment I could afford at the time.

JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years? Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?

NR: My first influences on Jazz guitar were Joe Pass, Pat Metheny and more Fusion players like Al Dimeola, Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour. Later its was George Benson, Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino and Miles Davis. Then the great Vic Juris whom I studied with. Today I still listen to Wes Montgomery and George Benson. In the past 15 years or so I’ve listen to Adam Rogers, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Keith Jarrett, Steve Khan especially his recent Latin-Jazz recordings and lately Rodney Jones, who has become a major influence on me in the past year.

JGL: In the same vein, who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?

NR: A major influence in my musical life and more was the pianist Mike Longo who was Dizzy Gillespie’s musical director during the 60’s. I may not be playing if I had not connected with Mike. I was in a real dark place with my playing and on the fringe of quitting when a friend told Mike about me and he called me. I studied with Mike for three years and he got my act together with my playing and arranging. My new record Latin Side of Wes Montgomery was the result of his teachings. He was a great musical mentor but also a mentor in life. He passed away from Covid. I miss him everyday.

JGL: When attending the New School’s Mannes College of Music in NYC you had the opportunity to study guitar with the great Vic Juris and the renowned Remo Palmieri. How were these experiences for you as a student of Jazz Guitar and what – if any – were the differences in their teaching styles?

NR: Studying with Remo Palmeri was a great experience. He wrote out transcriptions and solos to different standards. He gave me chord melody arrangements and wrote out certain Bebop tricks and progressions that were common of that era. He would write lines on these for me and analyzed what was in them. He wrote out some great Blues solos and the analysis of what scales and arpeggios he was super imposing. He did this as well to the solos he would right out for me; what scales and arpeggios he was using. The only thing was I didn’t know all the theory behind it at the time. I had not really learned how to improvise that well as yet, but I copied and memorized most of what he gave me. What was also great was the stories he told about all his experiences. I interviewed him for a school project and I still have the cassette.

With Vic Juris, he taught me the chord voicings on all the string groups and how to use them in chords progression like ii-V-I. Then he would have me comp or use them in chord melodies. This was eye opening for me! He taught me how to improvise in the different positions; what scales went with what chords. This was really difficult and took a long time. But I use it still today. Vic gave me tones of material to sight read. This is how I became a very good sight reader. He really emphasized the importance if reading music. He wrote out some of his own reharmonizations to tunes with his voicings, which was very cool.

JGL: Very cool indeed! Speaking of renowned players, you seem to have a strong friendship with the wonderful Jazz Guitarist/Composer/Educator Steve Khan. If so, how did this association come to be and will there ever be a Khan-Riveros duet album? 🙂 Given his own proclivity for Wes, did he have any input in the creation of The Latin Side of Wes Montgomery?

NR: I met Steve Khan many years ago at Colony Records which was a sheet music store on 49th and Broadway. It was there for decades. You could get practically get and music book or song you wanted. I had just purchased his book Chord Khancepts and I had mentioned that to him. He as kind enough to send me some extra sheets that didn’t make the book and some with corrections. We have been touch since and he would always reach out to me when he heard me on the radio and asked me about the guitars I was using and I’d ask him questions about his recording process with the Latin records he was doing. Even now with the new record he has been very excited to hear it played and we’ve been in touch a lot since it came out.

And no, Steve didn’t have anything to do with concept of the record. But I did speak to him prior to recording it and sent him so pre-recorded ideas of the arrangements. He was very excited for me and thought it would do really well. A duet record with Steve, now that would be interesting!

JGL: As a long standing and popular member of the Jazz Guitar community, what are you most grateful for and on the other side of the coin, what irks you?

NR: I am most grateful for the gift of being able to make music and make people happy from playing music. What irks me is sometimes the small climb that one has to take to get recognized. Also, all the little ‘cliques’ that exist everywhere, where if you are not part of that you can’t get in. There are clubs where if you are not part of their group, clique, hang your not getting your foot in the door. What irks me the most is “But can you bring people” I got that from one place where after I sold out the club they still asked me that!

JGL: Who are you listening to these days and is there anyone we should know about that might not be on anyone’s radar?

NR: Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of old Salsa and the Cuban tres master Arsenio Rodriguez since I play in a tribute band which performs his music. I also have a small LatinJazz/Salsa band. I’ve been working on incorporating the montunos and horn lines onto the guitar. I’ve been listening to Vic Juris last record Let’s Cool One, Wes Montgomery always, an incredible guitarist from Bulgari named Hristo Vitchev, who lives in San Jose, California. He is a great educator with a unique modern approach.

JGL: Is there anyone – alive or dead – who you’d love to play and/or record with and why?

NR: That’s a great question. For one I wish could have gotten to so something with Vic Juris since we were to play a gig before he passed. Also more work and playing with Mike Longo because I learned so much from him and there was still so much to learn. I would have loved to play with Chick Corea because I loved his music and everything he did.

JGL: What was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes? When improvising, are you thinking chord/scale relationships or is there something else going on?

NR: When I was starting I would work on scales in the different positions and learn as much as I could from records. I worked on arpeggios in many different ways from the root as well and starting from each chord tone. In my practice routine I also worked on chord voicing in all the string groups. I try not to think to much while I’m improvising and just listen. However I do plug in ideas that I have worked on and hopefully they will come out naturally. One concept that has helped me a lot is something called ‘Chord Connection’ which I learned from Mike Longo. Its also a voice leading exercise which I feel is indispensable. You play the notes of the scale pertaining to each chord in a tune in quarter notes, and you voice lead into the closet scale tone of the next chord.I end my practice blowing on tunes with as backing track.

JGL: Speaking of practice routines, you are highly regarded as an educator. What would you advise students of Jazz Guitar to work on if you could only choose two components and why?

NR: The two components I would choose to advise Jazz Guitar students to practice are one, the chord connection exercise I explained in the previous answer because this will train your ears to hear the changes. The second one would be to then blow on tunes freely following the first exercise.

JGL: Do you give private lessons and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?

NR: My Latin roots go very deep due to the rhythm, where it all starts.The same with Jazz.There maybe certain rhythmic and melodic phrasing in my melodies and improvisations with spill over into the Jazz content. Both these genres come from the African thing.

JGL: Your first CD as a leader – Camino Al Barrio – was released in 2010 and hit #8 on the Jazz Week World Music Chart. The Latin Side of Wes Montgomery, your latest CD has been on the top of the Jazz Week Charts as well. Of course I’m not surprised because it is a wonderful tribute to a most legendary Jazz Guitarist but I’m curious as to why it took roughly eleven years from your first CD to your second?

NR: Good question Lyle. I feel it may have hurt me a little not following up Camino Al Barrio soon after with another release. I think this would have established me more as a solo artist by now. It just could be that I had nothing to say until I thought of the Latin Wes project. There is also the financial aspect of it as well. Its very costly to do a CD project.

JGL: Speaking of your latest release – The Latin Side of Wes Montgomery – it showcases your love for Wes Montgomery along with your love for Latin/Cuban music. What prompted you to “marry” both together and what – if any – challenges were there in getting the sound you heard in your head to the final product?

NR: After I played a gig that was only Wes Montgomery tunes it hit me that Wes’ music could work in the Latin content. I have always been listening to Cuban and South American music therefore, the creating process was easy for me. The fun part was changing certain rhythmic aspects of the melodies. The sound for a lot of what I did was already in my head before I started the arranging process. From there it was all about It was all about making decisions on how I wanted each.

JGL: On the cover of The Latin Side of Wes Montgomery you are holding a beautiful blonde ES-175. Is this your main guitar and it was it featured on the CD? What other guitars do you own?

NR: Yes its a 1979 Gibson ES-175 which is the guitar played on the whole record. I own a ’69 Gibson ES 335, Takamine nylon string, Guild Steel string, Fender Strat from the 80’s, and a Hamer Quilt Top with dual humbuckers.

JGL: In the same vein, what amps do you prefer to use and do you use any outboard processing gear?

NR: I use a Fuchs Full house 50 which was used the record and I have a Fender Blues Jr, and well as a Fishman Loudbox mini for the acoustics. I use a small pedal-board with overdrives, boosters, deal and reverb with occasional chorus.

JGL: Is there a particular musical situation (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.) you prefer over the other and is there a particular situation you have yet to play in but would like to?

NR: I prefer quartet with piano because I love the sound of the piano and hearing the harmonies while I improvise. Plus in some of my writing and arranging I like writing parts for the piano. Trio is cool too and one can be more adventurous. I don’t play often with horns so a setting with trio and one or two horns would be interesting I would be the only chordal instrument therefore giving me a more challenging but exciting roll as accompanist but also still be a separate voice and being able to use some different voicings.

JGL: Almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature has their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you face on your instrument and how do you work at getting over them?

NR: My only real insecurity is not being able to get a consistent flow in my playing when playing in a live situation. There are other variables like the sound of the room, not being great or your equipment not sounding its best. This can also hinder trying to do ‘your thing’. In my practice routine I try to work on getting a flow. Before a gig I work on practising as if I was playing a full set of music.

JGL: Given the success of your latest CD, do you find the business side of being a Jazz musician distracting or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to the managers and agents? Do you have a manager or agent or is it all a one-man operation?

NR: It would be great to have some representation to handle bookings. It is like having two jobs, the music and the business person. I am learning a lot of the business side of things however doing it on my own.

JGL: How have you been doing during the pandemic? Have you had to do things differently to get by professionally and personally and if so, how have you been coping?

NR: The pandemic gave me time to work on music and finish the recording. Losing a lot of work was difficult so I starting on line teaching which helped with income and I have enjoyed teaching a lot. I was able to practice more and focus and I really enjoyed being at home.

JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar? NR:

NR:

  • Buy 100 records, listen and learn every note
  • Know and memorise your scales
  • Practice your scales and arpeggios over a jazz chord progression
  • Memorise basic chord progressions that are most common to Jazz standards
  • Memorise tunes and play with as many like-minded people as possible

JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.

NR: There was never any thought of me doing anything else but playing and teaching music.

JGL: What does the future hold for Nelson Riveros?

NR: Presently I’m doing my Masters degree at NJCU which is something I’ve been wanting to do for many years. I’ve been writing new music for what I hope will be a new project. I would really like to get the Latin Wes band playing out more before the year is over.

JGL: Thank you Nelson for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. All the best in all that you do!

NR: Thank you so much Lyle for me to chat with Jazz Guitar Life and being recognized as an artist.

Please consider spreading the word about Nelson and Jazz Guitar Life by sharing this interview amongst your social media pals and please feel free to leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you 🙂

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