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Josh Nelson: Exploring Mars

Dan McClenaghan By

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Mars, the forth planet from the sun—that blood red star arcing across the sky—has been investigated by many in the arts. Before NASA landed four rovers on the red planet's surface, science fiction writers took up the task of exploring our planetary neighbor: Edgar Rice Burroughs with his fantastic Barsoom series, beginning with Princess of Mars (1917), Ray Bradbury with the poetic Martian Chronicles (1950), and Kim Stanley Robinson with his superb, adventurous and scientifically fact-based Red Mars (1993 are three examples that just scratch the literary surface of the planet's ruddy soil.

Pianist Josh Nelson brings his own person fascination with our planetary neighbor to fore with Exploring Mars, a science fiction/science fact/jazz follow-up to his Discoveries, that delved into the work of seminal writers Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (whose War of the Worlds (1898) documented malevolent Martians invading the Earth.)

Nelson opens Discovering Mars with "Bradbury's Spirit," a reading from Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, describing the music of the Red Planet—strange and beautiful and unbidden sounds invading the art of Martian musicians and singers, featuring a spare and "silvery" accompaniment by guitarist Larry Koonse.

Four robotic rovers have landed on a traversed the Martian landscape. Nelson nods to each—"Sojourner," "Opportunity," "Curiosity," and "Spirit." These are mainstream compositions with otherworldly tints imbued in no small part by the use of the EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument) of John Daversa.

"Memnonia Quadrangle" showcases, again, Larry Koonse' reflective guitar work, and "Solis Lacus, The Eye of Mars," put drummer Dan Schnelle front and center with an expansive drum kit orchestration. If there were Martian music—if Bradbury's concept were real—it might sound like "Syrtis Major, The Hourglass Sea." These are alien sounds from Daversa on the EVI—deep rumbles and Martian bird (or bat) tweets, as beautifully odd and out-of-this-world as it gets.

Nelson brings in one non-original to the set: "Mars, The Bringer of War," from Gustav Holst's popular classical piece, The Planets. Nelson goes solo on the piano for this one, but overdubs layers of the instrument for his own distinctive take on the tune.

In the middle of all this sits what amounts to the most gorgeous of pop songs: "How You Loved Me On Mars," co-written by Nelson and vocalist Kathleen Grace. Produced and arranged to perfection, it sounds like something that might have been written by Joni Mitchell teamed with Paul Simon: smart, dreamy and off-kilter with a heartfelt vocal by Grace, with a thoroughly engaging melody, this should be on the radio racking up the sales. In the 1960s it would have had that shot. Now, sadly, the powers that be in that arena are just too conservative. Their loss.

Track Listing: Bradbury's Spirit; Sojourner; Memnonia Quadrangle; How You Loved Me On Mars; Opportunity; Solis Lacus, The Eye Of Mars; Mars, The Bringer Of War; Curiosity; Syrtis Major, The Hourglass Sea; Spirit.

Personnel: Josh Nelson: piano, trumpet, Nord Electro 3; John Daversa: trumpet, EVI; Larry Koonse: guitar; Dave Robaire: bass; Dan Schnelle: drums; Kathleen Grace: vocals; Alan Ferber: trombone; Brian Walsh: bass clarinet; Larry Goldings: B3 organ(4).

Title: Exploring Mars | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Origin Records

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