Josh Nelson is the most accomplished of the younger L.A. jazz pianist-arrangers, and he has assembled a fine group of originals, along with Holst's foreboding "Mars, Bringer of War," on Exploring Mars. An opening reading from Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles sets the tone, with Nelson handling the relaxed recitation over Larry Koonse's discreet guitar chords. The small ensemble music in this collection is often lyrical, harmonically rich and elegant. Like Bradbury's Martians, Nelson's Mars sounds and feels a lot like science fiction. Singer Kathleen Grace's clear-water voice caresses "How You Loved Me On Mars," which brings to mind early '70s Randy Newman at his heartfelt best. Of course, Nelson isn't immune to fusion, and his "Solis Lacus, The Eye of Mars" makes full use of John Daversa's spacey EVI.