4 1/2 STARS
Josh Nelson has seen quite a bit in recent times, diving deep into the human psyche with singer Sara Gazarek, moving through inner spaces with vibraphonist Tyler Blanton, exploring retrofuturistic realms inspired by the writings of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and touching down on Mars for a thorough musical exploration of the Red Planet. So where could he possibly want to go after traveling so far and wide with his pen and piano? Right back home, of course. With The Sky Remains, this native Californian turns his attention toward the City of Angels, using its visual wonders and historical background as pure inspiration.
Wonders never cease here, as Nelson's imagination carries us to unexpected places and uncovers topics and stories hidden in the mists and mortar of Los Angeles. Utilizing a collection of West Coast heavies and longtime colleagues, he paints subtle gestures, sophisticated thoughts, and broad strokes that, as the album's subtitle explains, touch on the past, present, and future of the city. The end result is a work that speaks to an arranger's mind, a songwriter's sensibility, and a historian's eye.
"Bridges And Tunnels" sets this collection of music in motion. It's a story focused on overcoming nature, as Nelson looks toward the work of the visionary developers who built high and low in order to make Los Angeles a reality. At first, a flowing piano line serves as a foundation for lyrical clarinet and wordless vocals to paint upon. Later, Nelson and guitarist Anthony Wilson develop a compelling conversation as the tides build around them. The title track - one of two writing collaborations with vocalist Kathleen Grace - follows, taking on the topics of consistency and change set against the backstory of Griffith J. Griffith, a figure who gifted the city the funds to build his namesake observatory and the Greek Theatre as a form of image remodeling and penance after serving prison time for shooting his wife. It's the most memorable track on an album that leaves many lasting impressions.
As Nelson and company continue to root around in their backyard, they find more and more to work with. "On The Sidewalk," saxophonist Josh Johnson's lone compositional contribution, references writer Charlotta Bass' work through a hypnotic lens; "The Architect," containing the strongest piano solo on the record, is Nelson's Latin-tinged ode to his husband and a nod all who've helped to design the city's signature structures; and "Ah, Los Angeles," opening on ruminative thoughts fleshed out by Nelson and bassist Alex Boneham before widening its gaze, strengthening its resolve, and giving itself over to Lillian Sengpiehl's vocals, deals with artists' reach for their respective dreams.
While original music dominates here, Nelson includes two choice covers from different stylistic corners. Veteran Los Angeles film and television composer Russell Garcia's "Lost Souls Of Saturn" comes first, touching on faux Polynesian ideals and space exotica with a rumbling undercurrent, and singer-songwriter Elliot Smith's "Pitseleh" immediately follows it, paying homage to a career cut short and a life ended in Echo Park. Both carry sentiments beyond the scope of a single place, but each is tied to the geographical topic at hand.
The three tracks that close out the album - a carousel ride through "Pacific Ocean Park" that moves from wistful sentiments to grand round-and-rounds, a Grace-fronted "Run" concerned with the legacy of Olympian-turned-activist Mack Robinson, and a captivating climb on the city's "Stairways" - add further depth and perspective about all that Los Angeles has to offer in and out of sight. Nobody need know the details behind these songs in order to appreciate the beauty in the music, but understanding the background makes for deeper appreciation for The Sky Remains. Those who live near Nelson are able to go even one step further, hearing this music as part of The Discovery Project - an ongoing multi-disciplinary presentation that marries sound to images. But the rest of us will just have to make do with this fascinating music. It's more than enough to keep the mind and emotions busy and happy.