For jazz musicians and their audience, the spring and summer months of 2020 have been, to paraphrase the rebel leader Don Jose in The Wild Bunch, the months of sadness. Musicians need to communicate, exchange, and create with each other. And most thrive before an audience. As clubs and music spaces shutter due to the Coronavirus, we’re hunkering down through a crossroads in the music that will take a long time to fully analyze.
One effect has been the taking of stock. As people have quarantined, many have examined, listened, watched and read what they’d promised to get to someday. One current recording has been especially rewarding and reassuring through this crisis: The Discovery Project – Live in Japan (Steel Bird Music) by the Josh Nelson Trio.
Well-known as a vocal accompanist and composer-arranger for singers, Nelson is also a first-class jazz pianist. He’s also a film composer and teacher, and the former is an important key to his musical profile. Nelson is an imaginative conceptualist, and his live multi-media Discovery Project presentations have been the toast of Little Tokyo’s Blue Whale club. Bassist Alex Boneham and drummer Dan Schnelle, righteous collaborators, complete Nelson’s Trio.
While those evenings can make one’s head spin as the various musical and visual plates spin in the air, Live in Japan is a subtly immersive recording. The five originals, recorded at the Kobe Modern Jazz Club, are performed with layered nuance and swinging drive. You can listen superficially, going about your business in the room, and have a rewarding experience. But give that music your full attention and you dive heard-first into a pool that’s quite deep—in ensemble interaction, individual performances, and engaging compositions.
With Nelson, there’s often something unstated, though tangible, in the music. His almost stately “Dirigibles” is pulled along by Boneham’s virile bass chords, as Nelson’s harmonic grace notes and fillips unfold at a near-piano dynamic. But the closing crescendo not only surprises, but engenders questions (Is this a blueprint for an orchestral piece? Does it accompany a movie scene? Is it a movement of a suite?)
The closest thing to a jazz standard on the collection is Thelonious Monk’s “Reflections,” and Nelson has a ball with it. He plays rhythmic games around the stride piano style that was a component of Monk’s playing, then capriciously ambles through the tune in the playful manner of Erroll Garner. And hear Schnelle’s whispering brushes: he’s a solitary sand dancer as the piano shimmers and somersaults around him.
Life will not always be as it is today. Jazz will return to small, enclosed rooms and with it, its audience. In the meantime, this CD is as good a way of saying We’ll meet again as anything you’ll run across these days.
Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on jazz and culture.