Booking jazz pianists and their ensembles is no novelty for bluewhale proprietor Joon Lee. L.A.’s most consistent and prolific showcase for new and cutting-edge jazz is the favored venue for many young, forward-looking keyboardists. But when pianist and composer Josh Nelson brings one of his infrequent multimedia extravaganzas into the Whale, walls move — and minds do, too.
“By now,” Nelson chuckles, “Joon’s used to us pretty much destroying the place.”
Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but there’s no denying that Nelson’s Discovery Project nights alter the Little Tokyo room’s interior. The ambitious but occasional series, which convenes tonight and tomorrow (Nov. 13-14), transforms bluewhale into an immersive environment that combines video, performance art, light and art installations and, of course, music.
Nelson fields a small but flexible group of reedman Brian Walsh, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Dave Robaire, drummer Dan Schnelle and vocalists Kathleen Grace and Lillian Sengpiehl.
Nelson's father was a Disney Imagineer, and the science fiction writings of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Ray Bradbury loomed large in his childhood imagination. While he was ingesting the literary forebears of steampunk, he concurrently learned the classical and jazz literature of the piano. Nelson is arguably the most sought-after Los Angeles jazz pianist for studio work, ensemble playing and as an accompanist to singers.
His current album, Exploring Mars, is a collection of lyrical and texturally evocative originals, augmented by Gustav Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Nelson’s “Solis Lacus, The Eye of Mars” is a brisk electronic keyboard workout that would fit nicely into the catalog of the Chick Corea Elektric Band. Kathleen Grace’s heartfelt vocal on the lovely ballad “How You Loved Me on Mars” would touch the collective heart of the audience at an old-school supper club like the Gardenia Room.
Exploring Mars is an input source for Nelson’s two nights at the Whale, but this installment of the Discovery Project is ultimately a separate presentation called “The Sky Remains,” Nelson's rumination on Los Angeles' history and its future.
“One of the themes we’ll be exploring,” Nelson says, “is amusement park culture in L.A. So we’ll be getting into the old Pacific Ocean Park; there are a lot of great visuals that Travis Flournoy, our video artist, will be using.” The score to Chinatown, a film noir touchstone for Nelson, and tributes to L.A. musicians like Marcel Camargo and Elliott Smith are part of his ambitious and eclectic canvas as well.
The Discovery Project is an ongoing collaborative effort. Architect Jesse Ottinger uses Nelson’s music, conceptually rich in its references to history and science fiction, as his cue for temporary interior design. He sets up multiple screens and surfaces that can be projected upon. “I try to be creative in my approach to solving urban spatial problems,” he says, “and with the Discovery Project, I try to be transformational as well. Josh thinks that the video enhances the music a lot; it influences how the musicians play. I try to integrate the space we’re in into what the band is doing, and what the audience experiences.”
As he describes it, Ottinger brings to mind the light shows of the late-1960s psychedelic rock scene, like the ones Single Wing Turquoise Bird collective presented at the Shrine, using simultaneous multiple projectors. “I’m aiming for a more total environment as compared to the old light shows,” he cautions. “I use a lot of different lighting and I’m continually changing it throughout the night.” He’s working on the interior with artist Claudia Carballada, who will also be painting in real time to the music.
Vocalist Kathleen Grace and Nelson had long been friends and known of each other’s work but didn’t begin to collaborate until three years ago. The first Discovery Project night was at Vitello’s, and she was one of three singers who were on board. “Josh’s music is very lyrical,” she says. “It always tells a story — with or without lyrics. That’s why he’s a singer’s dream to work with. We’re both extremely eclectic and we let go of boundaries very easily. Josh never worries about definitions; he just goes for what feels right for the situation.”
She sees the Discovery Project concept, with its multilayered themes and presentations, as leading inevitably to a cinematic project. “I never want to predict where he’s going,” she hedges, “but Josh is so passionate about film that I can easily see him transitioning into movies.”
As it happens, Nelson has been tapped to score a commercial, but he’s reserved when asked about the future. “The L.A. themes are far-ranging,” he points out, “and they can keep me busy for a long, long time. But sometimes more than cinema, I feel like there’s a Broadway show in there somewhere.”
Don’t bet against it.