Los Angeles-based composer and pianist Josh Nelson plunges into the worlds of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne with Discoveries, his fifth album as a leader. This is an expansive work that utilizes an octet affectionately dubbed The Discoveries Band with splendidly rich results.
Nelson plays along with Larry Koonse (acoustic and nylon guitars), Dave Robaire (acoustic and electric bass), Dan Schnelle (drums and percussion), Alan Ferber (trombone), Dontae Winslow (trumpet and flugelhorn), Brian Walsh (bass clarinet), and Vanessa Robaire (vocals).
Nelson, a 2006 Thelonious Monk Competition semi-finalist, is a graceful pianist. He is more than comfortable stepping into a support role when the composition calls for it and his flourishes create an underpinning of bigheartedness and beauty. More than anything, Nelson plays piano strictly in service of the piece.
This is evident from the get-go, but Nelson’s sophisticated playing really comes into focus on “Sinking Ship.” He slides carefully into a sprightly solo after Ferber discreetly lets his trombone loose.
Nelson’s compositions call to mind other masters of the large ensemble, like Maria Schneider, but his resolve when it comes to exploring the blue depths is of his own making. The pieces are enriched by his sense of adventure and further sustained by a team of players more than game to explore the obscurity and curiosity at the bottom of the sea.
With keystones like Monk, Wells, Verne, and Herbie Hancock, some might think that Nelson is setting himself up for something beyond reach. But the absorbing excursion that is Discoveries keeps those influences near at all times, creating a sense of service while still maintaining the drive of a distinctive story.
There’s “Dirigibles” to that end, with its tender bass-clarinet melody and swanky nylon strings. Nelson cops to being influenced by Verne’s Island at the Top of the World, complete with floating sky-cities, and the composure of the piece positively allows for plenty of daydreaming.
Or there’s the title track, a striking piece of approximately eight minutes that allows Winslow the time and space to reach Johnny Coles territory with his solo.
With its steampunk theme and heart for exploration, Josh Nelson’s Discoveries is a dreamlike journey from a composer and pianist unafraid of showing his enchanted side.
This was originally published at Blogcritics.