Josh Nelson’s dreamy ‘Discoveries’ provides relief from stagnant world

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Inspired by the futuristic worlds found in Jules Verne and H.G. Wells’ novels, pianist/composer Josh Nelson carries the imagery sonically in the surreal “Discoveries” album. CREDIT: Ariel Lapidus and Emmanuel Tavares

“…some of the melodic and thematic material that I developed on this record literally came from dream states…I travel a lot, and often am running on little or no sleep. Some of the most interesting ideas that I think manifested on this record came from that sleepy frame of mind…dreamlike, curious, tired but still actively thinking… Sometimes I find when you think you’re not going to come up with any good ideas, that’s when you do! Random times of inspiration.” –Josh Nelson, Blogcritics Music by Jordan Richardson, September 25, 2011

It takes a lot to stand out in a band backing a charismatic jazz vocalist like Sara Gazarek. But that’s just what pianist Josh Nelson did — both in her recent solo album, Blossom & Bee, and a slew of performance concerts on the West Coast.

As a solo artist himself, Nelson does something special with melody that very few can. He artfully takes a pleasant refrain and transforms it into a dreamy soundtrack full of imaginative and unpredictable variations. Everything in Nelson’s recent solo release, Discoveries, sounds as if the listener got dropped in the middle of his never-ending dream.

As soon as Nelson’s first track “Atma-Krandana” launches, the world of bills, lists, and appointments fades into black, and there’s a building, startling, mesmerizing dream sequence of color, tone, texture, and blissful release. This track in particular releases with a hypnotic flow dipping into classical, smooth jazz, and world musical styles. Listening to the melody lift and separate, cascade and fall together is similar to the feeling one gets laying in bed after a hard day’s work, drifting in and out of various stages of REM.

L.A. artist Josh Nelson took inspiration from his favorite sci-fi authors, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, as well as his favorite artist in some of his favorite works, Herbie Hancock’s “Speak Like A Child” and “The Prisoner,” for his fifth and most successful recording effort. “This record was definitely inspired by some of my childhood and ongoing obsessions with early sci-fi steampunk imagery that comes out of Jules Verne’s writing, H.G. Wells’ writings and movies like The Time Machine, which is based on Wells’ book, and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, based on Verne’s book. And I’m trying to manifest all that stuff into basically a jazz record, more or less.”

The personnel on this jazz record (Larry Koonse, Dave Robaire, Dan Schnelle, Dontae Winslow, Alan Ferber, Brian Walsh, Vanessa Robaire) is nothing short of inspired. The cauldron of horns, bouncing off light and dark, grays and blues, like two birds tangled in each other’s wings falling from the skies, only to come together with angelic cries (Vanessa Robaire), guitar (Larry Koonse) and piano (all Nelson)… absolute heaven. Hats off to trumpeter Dontae Winslow and trombonist Alan Ferber. Such is the their theme throughout.

Herbie Hancock’s “The Prisoner” — specifically “I Have A Dream” — is all over the fifth and title track, with strong, strident Tijuana Brass Band horn plays. Nelson spreads out and takes his time really putting a signature flourish over this easygoing, tumbling piece. That’s the twist to this composer/arranger; no matter what he’s playing, whether it’s up front and solo or in the background, he’s got a flamboyant panache to every proceeding. The flickering embers of Koonse’s guitar licks really complete the package.

“Tesla Coil” changes the dance completely with just Nelson rampaging on the piano, twisting his virtual villainous mustache and showing off his chops and virtuosity, with quick-silver speed, schizophrenic tempo, notes flying, falling over themselves, a prelude to deeper meaning.

If “Tesla Coil” preludes deeper meaning, “Jogging Day” completely exudes it. There is so much going on musically, from the deceptively loping straightforward horn opening to the casual, almost random introduction of complex, intricate instrumentation that seems to get lost in permutations of slumber, arousal, and changing, abrupt dreamscapes. A doorbell segues into a trumpet propulsion, keys hinting at impending shifts with sharp, curvatures, a bass tries to feel its way, Bran Walsh’s “rich and full” bass clarinet smoothes the edges… hard to believe this song came from a real jog on Long Beach.

“The driving eighth-note rhythm emerged from my jogging pace and tempo that day,” Nelson affirmed. “And I thought it would be a nice addition for Alan Ferber to arrange it. He’s an amazing musician and does some great writing and arranging for his own nonet, so he ended up putting some of his magic on it with the orchestration of the horns, which I really enjoyed.”

When Josh Nelson isn’t backing stars like Natalie Cole, or colleagues like bassist Pat Senatore, guitarist Anthony Wilson, and trombonist Alan Ferber’s ensemble, he’s squeezing in performances of his own with music and video highlighting those dreamy sequences off “Discoveries.” A recent Josh Nelson Discovery session at Studio City’s Vitello’s proved to be a rousing success. Sara Gazarek’s husband provided video to sound.

Jazz Medium©: Feeling the music, one review at a time.

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