Nivaldo Ornelas is an important musician with a solo career and a solid resumé as sideman, performing, recording, and/or touring with such names as Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette, Egberto Gismonti, Wagner Tiso, Milton Nascimento, and many others.
Ornelas began to play accordion very early. At 16, he was already playing clarinet and was a member of the Orquestra Sinfônica Mineira. Soon he was playing saxophone at dance parties, when he created the Berimbau bar, where he played with those who would be known as the Clube da Esquina: Milton Nascimento, Toninho Horta, Wagner Tiso, the Borges brothers, and others. In 1967, he formed the Quarteto Contemporâneo with pianist Jairo Moura, bassist Tibério César, and drummer Paulo Braga. In 1970, he moved to Rio and joined the Som Imaginário group. With Wagner Tiso (keyboards), Robertinho (drums), Tavito (12-string violão), Luís Alves (bass), Laudir (percussion), Zé Rodrix (organ, voice, percussion, flutes), and Toninho Horta (guitar), the group was formed to accompany Milton Nascimento in the show Milton Nascimento, Ah! e o Som Imaginário at the Teatro Opinião (1970, Rio). In 1970, the show moved to Teatro da Praia and Naná Vasconcelos replaced Laudir. Moving again to the Sucata nightclub, the group was joined by Frederiko on guitar.
That year, the group also performed in São Paulo and recorded their first LP, Som Imaginário (Odeon). In 1971, the group accompanied Gal Costa at the Teatro Opinião and also recorded their second album. In 1971, the group wrote and recorded the soundtrack to the movie Nova Estrela; the band also went on accompanying Milton Nascimento. With Novelli (bass) and Paulo Braga (drums), the group recorded a third LP, A Matança do Porco, whose title track had been written as the theme song to the film Os Deuses s os Mortos (Ruy Guerra, 1970). They also backed Macalé, Carlinhos Vergueiro, and Sueli Costa.
During all of his stint with Som Imaginário, Ornelas also worked with such talents as Hermeto Paschoal, Paulo Moura, and others. With Flora Purim and Airto Moreira, he toured the U.S. coast to coast in 1978, performing at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Festival Intemacional de Jazz de São Paulo. He also then recording his first solo album, Portal Dos Anjos, which earned him the Villa-Lobos award for the Best Instrumental Album of the Year. As a sideman for Hermeto Pascoal, Ornelas performed at the Montreux and Tokyo Jazz Festivals. With his band BR1, he performed at the Rio Jazz Festival. As sideman for Egberto Gismonti, he recorded Trem Caipira and Academia de Danças. His soundtrack for the movie João Rosa (Helvécio Ratton) was awarded as the Best Soundtrack at the Festival de Cinema de Brasília. In 1982, he again received the prize for his soundtrack for Dança dos Bonecos (same director). His soundtrack for Fernando Sabino's Encontro Marcado also was awarded twice. That year, he toured Europe as sideman for Milton Nascimento. In France, he recorded his solo album A Tarde. In 1983, he performed at the Festival de Jazz de Brasília and also released his LP Viagem Através de um Sonho, which he was awarded by APCA as the Best Reed Player of the Year. This LP would be awarded in 1984 with the Chiquinha Gonzaga prize, a year in which he released the album Som e Fantasia with keyboardist Marcos Resende. Planeta Terra was another of his lauded albums by the specialized critics. In 1994, he participated on the album Songbook Antônio Carlos Jobim Instrumental (Lumiar) and at the Festival Banco do Brasil Mundial, when he recorded another CD, shared with pianist Amilson Godoy, which was also released in the ten-CD box set released by Tom Brasil. As a sideman, he participated in 1997 on the CD Paradiso by the composers Celso Foseca/Ronaldo Bastos. In 1998, he participated as sideman on Dom Um Romão's CD Rhythm Traveller, a year in which he released his CD of live shows, Arredores. In 1999, commemorating his 55 years, he invited for live shows such talents as Oswaldinho do Acordeon, bassist Arismar do Espírito Santo, Hermeto Pascoal, pianist Nelson Aires, and singer Vânia Bastos. In 1999, he performed at the Heineken Concerts with Toninho Horta, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette.