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Interview: Composer and Pianist Josh Nelson on Discoveries, Influences and Hiking Spots

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Los Angeles-based composer and pianist Josh Nelson is one busy dude. When he’s not lost in the worlds of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he’s expanding his musical repertoire. Nelson has played with some of the most respected names in the business, including Ralph Moore, Natalie Cole, Ernie Watts, Jack Sheldon, Queen Latifah, and Tom Scott.

Discoveries is his latest album. He enlists the services of tremendous players, including Larry Koonse and Dontae Winslow, in the creation of his expansive universe. Nelson’s fifth recording as a leader carries themes of inspiration and human possibility.

I recently had the chance to chat with the 2006 Thelonious Monk Competition semi-finalist about his inspirations, motivations and outlook for his musical future.

Discoveries features a brilliant Mark Twain quote in the liner notes. In part, it reads, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did.” How true is that for you as a musician?

That quote really jumped out at me the first time I read it. It kind of became a touchstone ideal for me for this record, and I definitely try and keep it in my mind when I do everything else in my life too. Carpe diem! This project seemed far-fetched, or maybe not fully realizable, when I first came up with it. Tying early sci-fi ideas and imagery to jazz music? But now, here it is! And I’m proud I took that leap of faith and put it out into the universe. Thanks, Mark Twain.

There is also a quote from H.G. Wells that references “the dream before the awakening” and talks about the potential of the human mind. How did this notion play into where you hoped to go with the record?

[There are] two sides to that quote. [First], some of the melodic and thematic material that I developed on this record literally came from dream states…I travel a lot, and often am running on little or no sleep. Some of the most interesting ideas that I think manifested on this record came from that sleepy frame of mind…dreamlike, curious, tired but still actively thinking…in jazz (and most music-making genres, I guess), you have to be ready to perform, create, and deliver no matter what your physical and mental state is. Sometimes I find when you think you’re not going to come up with any good ideas, that’s when you do! Random times of inspiration.

[Second], this quote can also be interpreted through the sci-fi and futurist lens that H.G. Wells used to focus his ideas. Perhaps all that we are seeing/hearing/experiencing in this world, everything around us, is just the prelude to what’s really coming. So many other great philosophers include this idea in their writings, possibly blurring the edges of reality with fantasy.

I’m intrigued by this notion. While making a jazz record I wanted to flirt with the possibility of musically tapping into Wells’ idea…and maybe this record, Discoveries, is the dream before I awaken? Discoveries: Part II might be on the horizon? We’ll see what surprises the future brings. I’ll continue to read The First Men in the Moon and Journey to the Center of the Earth in the meantime.

In the end, the work of Wells and Jules Verne, two key inspirations for the record from a literary standpoint, were really about stretching human potential. Are there parallels with what Josh Nelson hopes to do musically?

I’d like to think that I might stretch human potential, sure! Sounds great. I’m not quite sure I want to do it the same way they did, or if I’ll have that much impact in that way, but it sure is something to strive for.

In my music, I still think melody is king, and the musicians’ individual voices are so important to let shine. In a similar way, Wells and Verne conveyed some familiarity in their theories and writings, stringing together the parlance of their era with forward-thinking ideas. I just want to make good music with friends that people might hum when the record player stops! I think Wells and Verne, at their core, probably wanted the same thing.

Talk about the importance of the steampunk themes and how they played into Discoveries.

One of my favorite movies (and favorite movie scores) is the 1954 Disney classic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Jules Verne wrote the book. James Mason and Kirk Douglas are so great in this movie. Peter Lorre too, classic. Enough about that!

The Nautilus, the iron warship-destroying invention of Captain Nemo’s devising, seems to sum up the so-called “steampunk” genre that you’re referring to. The Nautilus, the Time Machine (from the 1960 movie of the same name), and Nikola Tesla’s coil all represent this love I have for sci-fi, inventions, dreamers trying to realize their dreams. Musically, I tried my best to interpret these things into jazz compositions. In the case of The Time Machine, I arranged Russ Garcia’s beautiful love theme from the movie for the Discovery horns. “Tesla Coil” was written after I experienced a vibrant one emitting electricity arcs at the Griffith Observatory in L.A. Fun inspiration!

Discoveries“Tesla Coil” is built and named for the resonant transformer circuit and how that can translate into musical energy.

Yes! Tesla is awesome to me. What a nut. I tried to capture his whole vibe, and a Tesla Coil firing off, in this solo piano tune.

I noticed that you “discovered” some of the basis for “Sinking Ship” after checking out a natural rock formation at Bryce Canyon National Park. Does nature play a role as an influence?

Absolutely! I love being outdoors and writing about nature-related themes.

And a final word on the subject, what are some of your musical influences?

(Dmitri) Shostakovich, (Claude) Debussy, (Maurice) Ravel, film scores (Bernard Hermmann is my favorite), Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Beach Boys, John Adams, Bill Evans, Mulgrew Miller, Maria Schneider…the list is long!

You’ve expressed admiration for the broad, expansive musical movements of the likes of Maria Schneider and Bob Brookmeyer. What draws you to working with larger ensembles?

It’s a challenge! Starting to try some big band music now actually. Just like piano: practice as much as possible.

Yet there’s something to be said for the intimacy of small groups.

Absolutely. I love the jazz-piano-trio format. I intend to record with my trio next year. Maybe a standards record. Haven’t done that yet. Still trying to learn them! There’s too many good ones to choose from.

Can you tell us a little about the ensemble from Discoveries? How did you choose them?

I was really inspired by Herbie Hancock’s 1968-69 records, The Prisoner and Speak Like a Child. He used a similar instrumentation on those albums (plus tenor sax). I’ve always wanted to write some music for bass clarinet, and this was the perfect record to try it on. The bass clarinet has such a beautiful tone and an amazing range. Brian Walsh is one of the top young guys playing it in L.A.

Alan Ferber (trombone) – what a talent. His own big band and nonet records are so inspiring to me, and I feel very lucky he was able to play on the record. Dontae Winslow (trumpet/flugelhorn) is one of the top cats not only on horn but as a producer and composer. He brought a real fire I was looking for from this chair.

So what’s next? Where does Discoveries take you as an artist?

I’m planning more dates for the music/video/art component of this release. It’s a multimedia show with some really fun steampunk and sci-fi video imagery. We had a two-night run of it in L.A. last weekend, and it went great!

I’m scoring a short film right now, and that’s a direction I really want to move forward with. I teach as well, and get much joy from that.

I always ask this, but it never gets old (at least in my view): your ideal musical partner in crime, from any era, is:

Wow. Good question. Right now I’m feeling…Betty Carter.

And finally, your favourite place to hike is…

Griffith Park, L.A. Awesome. I go as often as possible.

 

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