Q&A: Garland Nelson finds a way to connect with audiences

Garland Nelson is one of the most popular guys in Saratoga Springs. As he sips a coffee in Uncommon
Garland Nelson, right, performs with his group Soul Session on the Empire State Plaza in Albany on July 4.
Garland Nelson, right, performs with his group Soul Session on the Empire State Plaza in Albany on July 4.

Garland Nelson is one of the most popular guys in Saratoga Springs.

As he sips a coffee in Uncommon Grounds, a stream of people approach him, pat him on the back, shake his hand, give him a hug and some call him “the mayor.” He just laughs and waves them off. But it’s clear that Nelson is beloved in the city.

His celebrity is, in part, a product of his presence on area stages. His musical ensembles, Soul Session and Flavor, make the rounds of the region’s clubs. And as the summer heats up, the bands’ bookings explode.

The 10-member Soul Session, which features a stylized hybrid of soul, gospel and rock, performs every Thursday at Gaffney’s. Flavor performs progressive hip-hop jazz every Wednesday night at Thirteen. And then his duo with guitarist Mike Steiner, Soul By Candlelight, is featured every Monday at the Saratoga City Tavern.

Simply put, the singer and songwriter is busy.

“It’s madness, but it’s good,” he said.

Raised in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant projects, Nelson moved upstate to attend Skidmore College. He majored in government, graduating in 1997. Music was just a sideline — singing in gospel and vocal chamber groups on campus.

“I was a computer geek. God had a different mission in mind for me,” said Nelson. “After a time, I found out what I stood for and I couldn’t stop singing and performing. I couldn’t do anything else.”

Now, at 33, music is his life and keeps him and his groups on the road.

Q: How did you settle on soul music?

A: I found music as a means of expressing the spirit. We all have it. If you can find some way of connecting the dots, the people, it’s with soul. And that is how I got into soul as a statement.

It’s multi-genre, not just a black church expression. It could be Senegalese drums or a folk singer breaking you down with their lyrical content. It’s the spirit of soul. That’s what I represent.

Q: What do you mean by multi-genre?

A: In the beginning as a performer/entertainer, I sang the legends — Marvin Gaye, Sam Cook, Aretha Franklin — to help me find my own voice. They are the fundamental base.

But I’m on this journey to find my own way. The cool thing about being in Saratoga, I’m exposed to genres I might not have been exposed to in Brooklyn. I add rock ’n’ roll and world beat and fuse them and foster the sound.

It’s amazing. I’m blessed by musicians who can do it and an audience that is receptive to it.

I came up with the name Soul Session in a dream. The session part of it is that everyone there should be involved. The problem I have with music today is it’s “show me” and “look at me.” I devalue my part in it so we are all involved. It’s not just I’m the lead singer and I have killer background vocalists and great rhythm section. It’s about what happens when we are all together. What we do together, today in this room.

Q: You call it edu-tainment.

A: I stole that. I’m a huge fan of Boogie Down Productions, who used that. They believed in positive rap music, educational style.

I also do a lot of educational programs on black music. I’ve always been an entertainer, a crazy crack-headed guy jumping around. I have a lot of energy. But I always felt that you should use your powers for good to make a difference. Not just for kids, but adults too. It’s like being an educator.

Q: When did you arrive at the fact that the music experience is more than just entertaining people?

A: When I was the front man for the New York Players, a wedding band. When you just entertain, it’s awesome. But it wasn’t enough. When you are in front of a whole mass of people, I always felt, “What are you representing, how am I making my mother proud of the sacrifices she’s made?” I don’t want to say, “I have something to say and what you say doesn’t matter.” Entertainment is used to check out. But what if you can help the audience feel better about their day or their life? I want to help people stay positive.

There are not too many things I wouldn’t do in a show to bring everyone together. I’ll jump in a crowd of people or just sit down beside them and hang out. I have to check out of being so concerned about how I sound. I have to make sure everyone is going on the emotional ride with us, not just me. It clicked for me in 2002.

Q: That’s when you put together Soul Session.

A: Yes, in 2003.

Q: And you’ll do whatever it takes?

A: Yes. I want to have a synergy of voices and horns, polyrhythmic stuff going on. Super electric, acoustic, a cappella. I want to keep it organic. We change our show up. We don’t operate with set lists. We are all well-rehearsed enough, we have complete confidence in each other and we can change it up.

At the Empire State Plaza, on the Fourth of July, I felt there was a whole blues contingent. We were doing the whole soulful thing and I thought we should bring it down to the basics. We swept into Ray Charles’ “Night and Day.” I had no inclination to call in that tune. At a big show, we want to do more complex stuff. But hey, this is not what the crowd was calling for.

We have a concept, what we want to do for the show, but the concept can be thrown in the trash as soon as we vibe out with the crowd we are blessed with.

We close every show with a capella gospel, a lot of times with “Amazing Grace,” even if we are at the craziest bar with everyone acting all psycho. It’s just to remind ourselves what is driving the bus. What is driving the bus is the spirit.

Categories: Life and Arts

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