Pianist and composer Josh Nelson's new album, The Sky Remains, due for release September 15, is a mosaic of his impressions of his home town, Los Angeles. Live performances of the music from this album feature multimedia film footage to enhance the audience's experience.
More often than not, programmatic music designed to depict a specific location or event fall flat for those whose experience does not include those places or images. In addition to the visual enhancements noted above, Nelson smooths this over somewhat by presenting music that is as enjoyable to those who never set foot in Los Angeles as to those who grew up there.
In the opening selection, Bridges and Tunnels, Nelson sets the tone for the album, beginning with soft, almost ambient-style jazz, with gently flowing arpeggios, that slowly morphs and builds into something quite different. Kathleen Grace's wordless voice is heard singing along with the music, but what struck me was the fact that this is a composition, with a beginning, a middle and an ending, in which the jazz element is subsidiary. Nelson is the primary soloist, with occasional fills from and a chase chorus with guitarist Anthony Wilson, who is co-producer of the album.
The Sky Remains comes next, a gentle, relaxed piece with lyrics describing the water and "the wave of the oceans." This was, to my ears, more of a soft pop piece than a jazz composition. According to the notes, it tells the true story of Griffith J. Griffith, who shot his wife in a drunken rage. The music proper picks up again with Josh Johnson's On the Sidewalk, which begins with a little horn fugue before featuring an 8-bar break by bassist Alex Boneham and then the melody proper played by trumpeter Chris Lawrence. This piece has a considerably harder jazz edge than the first two, named for a newspaper column written by Charlotta Bass, the first African-American woman to own and operate a newspaper in the U.S. The Architect follows, a remarkable, quirky piece which is also a real composition with alternating themes and development sections. I was particularly impressed here with Nelson's digital dexterity, turning an extended series of rapid triplets with remarkable articulation. Johnson's alto solo fits right in, but only uses triplets incidentally rather than continually. Nelson fills in some really nice counterpoint figures behind him, followed by a particularly fine Boneham solo and, later, an interesting drum solo by Dan Schnelle as Nelson and Boneham fill in with a repeated 12-note figure which the full band picks up on for the ride-out, with solo fills from the leader.
The liner notes tell us that Ah, Los Angeles was inspired by John Fante's book "Ask the Dust," about a young writer's struggles in the L.A. of the 1930s. This is told in slow, wistful musical lines, broken up with pauses, before going into a sort of rock beat, which mercifully dissipates for the vocal by Lillian Sengpiehl but returns for the guitar solo. We shall be kind and draw the curtain on this one.
The next piece, although nearly 60 years old, is not one I've heard before, Russ Garcia's Lost Souls of Saturn. It's the kind of pieces that has a certain "bachelor pad" exotica feel about it, very retro, with tempo changes and unusual, "spacey" chord changes. I found it exciting and delightful, particularly in the upward trumpet rips and Lawrence's exuberant solo, followed by Brian Walsh on B-flat clarinet and then Johnson on flute. Get out your old martini shaker for this one! The band has a lot of fun with it.
Another non-original on this disc is Pitseleh by Elliott Smith, a singer-songwriter whose work I was unfamiliar with. This is another pop tune. The notes claim that Pacific Ocean Park opens "with the haunting, Charles Ives-inspired sound of a merry-go-round," but apparently merry-go-rounds on the West Coast didn't use calliopes, as all the ones on the East Coast did, swo I wouldn't have recognized it as such. Nonetheless, this, too is a fine composition, here in 3/4 time, and after the gentle clarinet-piano opening, the band comes in strong and the rhythm section plays with an aggressive, almost mazurka-like beat.
Run memorializes something I had never known, that Mack Robinson came in less than a half-second behind Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. We hear so much about Owens' victory—which was considerable, and he earned it—that we never hear about Robinson, who as it turned out was the older brother of Jackie Robinson. Again, this is a pop tune.
The album's closer, Stairways, commemorates the 400 historic stairways scattered throughout Los Angeles. I think my city of Cincinnati has about 100, but considering it's far less than 1/4 the size of L.A. I'll take it. This is a moody but fascinating jazz piece, taken at a sort of loping, broken-rhythm 3/4 with fine solos by Lawrence, Johnson, Nelson and Wilson, again filling space in what is clearly a fine composition.
For those listeners who like soft-grained pop vocal tunes, this album will probably be more enjoyable as a whole, but I didn't care much for these pieces on this album. Even so, the other material here clearly puts Nelson in a very small group of jazz composers who take a true compositional approach to their work, and I for one give him all the credit in the world. It's very hard to compose original jazz pieces that have this kind of structural integrity, and here he does it repeatedly. Overall, then, I say it's an album you have to hear!