Pianist-composer Josh Nelson's follow-up to his 2011 science fiction-inspired album Discoveries, Exploring Mars delivers everything you would expect from an album with that title. Taking inspiration from actual science as well as science fiction, Nelson takes the listener along on a journey of musical exploration of variations on his Martian theme. There are tracks devoted to the exploratory rovers. There are tracks devoted to Martian geography. There are tracks devoted to earlier imaginative explorations in music and literature.
He opens the 10-track set with "Bradbury's Spirit," a composition that in a real sense bridges the scientific and the imaginative. Over an understated evocative waltz, Nelson reads a passage from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, a passage that describes a mystifying musical performance and its effects. It is a quite effective prelude to the album's programmatic concept combining Spirit and Bradbury.
"Sojourner" follows featuring guitarist Larry Koonse and Nelson on piano as it like its namesake takes its exploratory journey. Koonse and his solo guitar handle the first of the geographically inspired pieces, "Memnonia Quadrangle," leading to a haunting ballad, "How You Loved Me On Mars" with a pure and sensitive vocal interpretation from Kathleen Grace. Larry Goldings adds B3 accompaniment.
"Opportunity" is an otherworldly uptempo piece which gets some exotically strange sounds from Nelson on the Nord Electro 3. Drummer Dan Schnelle takes over for a percussive rhapsody in "Solis Lacus, The Eye of Mars." This leads to "Mars, The Bringer of War," the one piece on the album not composed by Nelson. Instead it is his adaptation of the first movement of Gustave Holst's The Planets for the piano that creates what he calls an arrangement "sort of like a Bill Evans Conversations with Myself approach to overdubbing." Interestingly, Larry Goldings (in the liner notes) uses the phrase "converse with himself" to describe Nelson's work on "Opportunity," trading solos on the piano and synthesizer as well.
"Curiosity" and "Syrtis Major, The Hourglass Sea" highlight the EVI (the Electro Valve Instrument), which, like the Nord, gives the pieces that spacey other worldly sound. For those of you (like me) unfamiliar with the EVI, an interesting explanation of how the instrument is played and its range is available from John Swana on YouTube. The set closes with a reprisal of "Spirit," this time without the spoken word passage, focusing attention on the music where indeed it belongs.
For the timid souls among us unlikely to be exploring anything at all, let alone Mars, Josh Nelson's Exploring Mars offers a welcome taste of what we're missing.