At L.A.'s Blue Whale as far back as 2012, jazz pianist and composer Josh Nelson previewed parts of his highly experimental Exploring Mars album project with sound and visual imagery, culminating in a two-night, multi-media CD release show last month. At times during the listening-only portion of the album, you want to frequently refer back to those visuals of a bleeding red sunset over a lonely isolated Mars horizon, the rovers, NASA engineers readying for another launch, scenes from a b/w sci-fi movie about astronauts in planetary space, knobs on a control board... something to make a lot of this technical sensory motion fit into an earthly, human dimension.
Inspired by the first Mars rover, Curiosity, landing on August 2012, science buff Nelson set about putting his own soundtrack to the foreign premises. In his February 17, 2015, Origin Records release, Nelson manages to astound with a tectonic grasp of the mechanical in the personification of rovers, knobs of metal and radioactivity, and a dead planet far from here, as well as an impossibly human romanticism despite the barren odds in one accessibly melodic love song. He also concentrates his musical grasp of so many various styles in the 10 original compositions: the classical, the avant-garde, and his vast experience animating a vocalist's soul while somehow able to animate themes, and ideas, and things far removed from his life.
"Syrtis Major, The Hourglass Sea" is a complete score conjuring up a machine and all its parts, perhaps a rover investigating the Mars landscape in the actual Syrtis Major Planum, a dark spot (or volcano) between the northern and southern plains of the planet. There's nothing human in the coils and tinny registers of such a score - imagined well by John Daversa, who plays EVI and trumpet on the record - save the vibe of a curious, mischievous R2D2 poking and prodding, trying to play in an empty, natural sandbox.
But then, the motors of the inanimate disappear at the first sound of her voice, human, woman, tender, wistful, singing an actual love story about this new planet and her sweetheart. Written by Nelson and vocalist Kathleen Grace, "How You Loved Me On Mars" seems musically separate from the rest of this detached scientific progress report, however cleverly made - acting as the sci-fi movie's hit-making single in the closing credits, the radio-ready adult contemporary hit people rush to download after the popcorn and the curtain call, like they did with the James Bond series.
Nelson embodies a vast range of studies: the volcanoes of ice, the finality of that red landscape, tragic love on Mars, a tangible forestry of gypsy jazz mapping the "Memnonia Quadrangle," an eerie and inevitably fatal, sci-fi wordless "Spirit" vocalese that would probably fit with the ending of Logan's Run when almost everyone over 30 dies, or the moment Thorn discovers that Soylent Green really is people.
Nelson is able to project what a rover or a woman in love might sound like with equal aplomb, yet remain a mystery himself. His style of play splinters and distributes according to his subject matter, and for now, it's all about the science out there.
With just a few choice musicians at hand - also guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Dave Robaire, drummer Dan Schnelle, B3 organist Larry Goldings on "How You Loved Me On Mars," trombonist Alan Ferber, bass clarinetist Brian Walsh - and himself on trumpet, piano, and the Nord Electro 3, Josh Nelson fulfilled his fascination with the Red Planet. As if today was the year 2025 and he'd returned from the first Mars One colony to tell the tale, better than anyone.