Steve Nelson-Raney has been mostly associated with free improvisation and the soprano and sopranino saxophones, although he has used other instruments and is adept in different idioms. His sax playing is closely related to Evan Parker, John Butcher, and Phil Hargreaves. Based in Milwaukee, WI, he has run a low-profile career, preferring to develop a small community of like-minded players and listeners there instead of moving to a bigger city. This philosophy parallels that of Hal Rammel, another Milwaukee-based improviser, and one of Nelson-Raney's most regular musical partners.
Nelson-Raney comes from classical and jazz backgrounds, two areas he never truly left. He studied classical piano at a young age, then started to play jazz and later picked up saxophone. His interest in the avant-garde jazz and contemporary classical music of the 1960s (Cecil Taylor, Charles Gayle, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago's Roscoe Mitchell on one side and Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman, and John Cage on the other) shaped his first experiences. But his activities of the 1970s and 1980s went largely unnoticed by both critics and audiences. He founded the label Cody in 1978 on which he released Some Piano Music (1978) and a few cassettes in the 1980s. He also composed a few works of chamber music, but they remain unrecorded.
In the early '90s, Rammel began to actively stimulate the local improv scene through his radio show Alternative Currents and the inception of his label Penumbra. Nelson-Raney, now teaching theory and jazz studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, took the opportunity to revamp his flailing career. On Cody, he released a set of sax solos (Summer 1994) and invited Rammel over for a jam session. The two hit it off. Breathing came out in 1999 on Penumbra, followed by two other sets of duets with Pele drummer Jon Mueller (Cutting Off the Edge of Time, 2001) and church organist Gary Verkade (Improvisations for Organ and Saxophone, 2002). In the meantime, the pair started the concert series the Great Lakes Improvisation Project and formed an improvising trio with guitarist Thomas Gaudynski, named Audiotrope. The saxophonist/pianist is also active in the jazz trio Dreamtime and in the world music trio Taqsim.