This summer, the Mars rover Curiosity will finally reach its destination after a nine month journey. Tomorrow, while the space module prepares to roam the Red Planet looking for dust, signs of life and a perhaps a good place to put our stuff once the Earth is destroyed, pianist Josh Nelson will be at the Blue Whale in downtown, leading his quintet in tribute to this costly mission.
For the last decade and a half, Josh Nelson has been an indispensable part of the Los Angeles jazz scene. He put out his first record in the late '90s as a teenage undergraduate at Cal State Long Beach and has criss-crossed the Earth with regularity since. His deft ear and nimble sense of swing has landed him a long-running gig with Natalie Cole; he also rivals Vardan Ovsepian for most notes played on the Blue Whale piano. He is a first-call sideman for musicians like Anthony Wilson and Jennifer Leitham but also has plenty to say on his own, and he's presenting those ideas in ways that few jazz musicians have dug into.
Last year, Nelson released an album of original material entitled Discoveries. The disc is a lushly composed, small ensemble homage to the technological mysteries proposed by writers Jules Verne and H.G. Wells that highlights Nelson's abilities with a pen and a piano. Following the album's warm reception, he began incorporating elements of video art into his performances, transforming the Blue Whale into a Tesla-esque laboratory for two sold out nights late last year.
“I had done something off the cuff and not really planned,” says Nelson. “Since then I've only done it at Vitellos in Studio City. Technically, this is going to be my fourth official show, but it's going to be a little different.”
When he performs tomorrow he'll aim for the future with a suite dedicated to our planetary neighbor. “The first set will be completely new music, specifically written about the Mars landing. The idea is that it will play as one long extended piece, but with a spontaneity and freeness about the whole thing.”
He'll be bringing the projections back but with an intent to interact with them a little more. “We're trying out some more ambitious visual elements this time. I want to kind of create a vibe in there, a modern museum look. Last time, we played to the video, but this time I thought, 'Let's have a dialogue between the video and the musicians.' “
Video artist Travis Flournoy will be displaying his art alongside Nelson. Flournoy was given a handful of mid-century film references like Forbidden Planet and the definitive radioactive ant film, Them! and told to interact with the music like a sixth member of the band. “Have you seen H.G. Wells' Things to Come?” says an excited Nelson. “It came out in 1936 but has these incredible models. You have to check it out!”
Jazz musicians put so little effort into the visual component of their shows; if you can get one to smile you should feel lucky. It is refreshing to see Nelson embrace this machinery and put it to engaging use. His musical abilities easily stand alone, but his desire to take his shows to the next level sets him even further apart.