Full Bio

Richard Nelson is a composer and guitarist who fosters a healthy creative interplay between the in-the-moment spontaneity of improvisational explorations and the more deliberately organized realms of composition. 

The Richard Nelson Imaginary Ensemble is his vehicle for concerts under his own leadership. Flexible in instrumentation, wide-ranging in genre, the group defies categorization with programs that range from fully-composed pieces and progressive jazz (and improvised music of all sorts) to straight-ahead jazz and music across the rock/pop/folk/blues spectrum. Alongside Richard's poly-stylistic original compositions might appear tunes by Cole Porter, John Lennon, and Ornette Coleman, as well as contemporary treatments of American traditional songs associated with performers such as Mississippi John Hurt and Roscoe Holcomb.

As a jazz performer and composer/bandleader, Richard has performed widely at festivals, clubs, colleges and other venues in the U.S. and abroad, including the Boston and Concord Jazz Festivals, St. Peter's Church and Symphony Space in New York, and Scullers and The Regattabar in Boston.  Musicians he has had the privilege of performing with include, in his student years, Slide Hampton, Joe Henderson, John Handy, George Duke, and Joe Pass, and, more recently, Sheila Jordan, Geri Allen, Mat Maneri, Taylor Ho-Bynum, Rajesh Mehta, Walter Thompson, and Don Stratton.  Many of these appearances have been with the Boston-based Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, of which he has been a core member for many years.  Richard has released three albums large ensemble and small-group material--Pursuit, Origin Story, and Figurations--as a leader.  A fourth, a five-movement suite titled Deep River and featuring Aardvark, is currently in production.  He also appears as a sideman on many recordings, including over ten with Aardvark.

Richard's recent compositions, both for his own ensembles and others, have been in hybrid formations that utilize improvisation as a unifying element in straddling the realms of contemporary classical music, jazz, and rock. His large-scale work Pursuit, a five-movement, 35-minute piece for a thirteen-player ensemble, brings his concert-music-composer's sense of large-scale form, structure and development to a work which is largely in a contemporary jazz idiom. Play of Light, a duo for flute and harp, incorporates a substantial improvisational extrapolation into what is otherwise a specifically notated work.  Pieces such as Stillness and Spacetime Foam, both for ensembles of improvisers, are vehicles suitable for both concert-music chamber ensembles and small jazz groups.  A major current project is a collection of pieces for the New York City-based Makrokosmos Orchestra, undertaken with co-leader Tim O'Dell.

In addition to numerous jazz compositions for both small and large ensembles, Richard has a large catalog of fully notated pieces directly in the concert music tradition. These works have been performed widely in concerts and at festivals across the country by such groups as Speculum Musicae, ALEA III, and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, among many others. Nelson has received awards and fellowships from the Charles Ives Center, Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop and he was a Visiting Artist at the University of Cape Town (South Africa) in the fall of 2004.

Richard's undergraduate education was at the University of California (Berkeley). His graduate studies in composition were at Indiana University and Columbia; his principal teachers were Don Erb and Mario Davidovsky. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Nelson resides in Maine, where he is a Professor of Music and head of the Sonic Arts and Composition Concentration at the University of Maine at Augusta.

Upcoming Shows


“Our Big Band” - Music of Steve Grover, arr. by Nelson and several others.

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SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland, ME 04101

Join OURBIGBAND, pianist Frank Carlberg, and a who’s who of the seacoast / Maine jazz scene in celebrating the life and music of Maine drummer / composer / educator Steve Grover. Grover, a Maine native and no stranger to The Press Room, was a versatile and in demand drummer, a winner of the 1994 Thelonious Monk Institute’s Composer Competition, and was widely known and respected for his talents, from New England to NYC and throughout the USA. A born teacher, a friend to many in the area, and colleague and mentor to many OBB members – Grover’s personality, his musicianship, and his compositions have left an indelible mark on all who knew him. Steve Grover passed suddenly in 2016 after a brief battle with cancer. Frank Carlberg, Richard Nelson, OURBIGBAND, and a host of guest composers will pay tribute to their friend and mentor by adapting Grover’s small group compositions for the large jazz orchestra.

$15 advance | $20 day of show | $10 for SPACE members & students