Apr 16 2015
Exploring Mars is pianist Josh Nelson’s ode to the Red Planet, inspired by science, stories and space travel. Opening track “Bradbury’s Spirit,” gets right to the heart of the matter. Gentle but urgent guitar and brushwork is set to a reading from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, reflecting the undercurrent of tension and fear united with the free-spirited adventurism of space exploration. That Nelson marries fictional text with instrumentals mirroring the abstract, but very real big-picture emotions associated with the subject of space and space travel is an impressive feat. It’s also a method that he uses to great effect throughout this excellent recording.
There’s a giddy anticipation to “Sojourner,” an emotion that surrounds every aspect of the satellite’s life. Isn’t that what the engineer who built Sojourner must have felt during its construction? And what about those at NASA control as it launched up and out of Earth’s orbit, the joy and awe they must have felt? And those of us who sit at our computer screens and pour over the photos sendt back to Earth… is it not the same for us, too?
Nelson utilizes a deft mix of solo, small & large ensemble, instrumental and vocal pieces. Solo guitar, piano, and drums & cymbals interludes create varying degrees of ambiance, from unsettled to serene, of glittering stars and red shifting sands.
The love song “How You Loved Me On Mars” is the reminder of the humanity that guides us no matter how far out we venture into space. This is further accented by Nelson shifting between the spacey sound of electric keyboards and the organic soul of piano.
Considering the subject of space travel is the theme of the recording, it’s especially refreshing to see Nelson use restraint and subtlety as his tools rather than a more cliched approach of grand, melodramatic statements. The fleet-of-foot “Opportunity” digs into a thick groove, but keeps its motion wound up in a tight focus so that it doesn’t begin to flail wildly and uninhibited. Closing track “Spirit” is a reprise of the opener, and its catchy skipping cadence is delightfully nuanced.
And then there’s the simple piano & vocals of “How You Loved Me On Mars,” which keeps to the size of a candle flame but resonates as strongly as it would on the darkest of starless nights. And the solo piano piece “Mars, the Bringer Of War” expresses both joyful and ominous tones in a way that gives the sense of one long continuous breath.
It’s an album with a huge thematic scope and a quirk personality. Those are two qualities that don’t often work so well together, and rarely does their combination result in a piece as exhilarating as Exploring Mars. Count it amongst the best released thus far in 2015.
Your album personnel: Josh Nelson (piano, trumpet, Nord Electro 3), John Daversa (trumpet, EVI), Larry Koonse (guitar), Dave Robaire (bass), Dan Schnelle (drums), Alan Ferber (trombone), Brian Walsh (bass clarinet) and guests: Kathleen Grace (vocals) and Larry Goldings (B3 organ).
Released on Origin Records.
Explore more of Nelson’s music on his Soundcloud page.
Jazz from the Long Beach, California scene.