Sometimes the vitality of an art form is demonstrated not by “big” records from major figures, but by unassuming projects from people you don’t know—yet. Press notes for Kites and Strings correctly point out that Ben Rosenblum is “the newest member of a small, extraordinary keyboard cadre … of players equally expressive on piano and accordion.” (Others include Gary Versace and Vitor Gonçalves.) The reedy strains of Rosenblum’s accordion differentiate his ensemble.
But much more is going on here. Rosenblum thinks of his sextet (plus three rotating guests) as an orchestra. He writes tunes that feel light in touch but whose arrangements interweave lines—from trumpeter Wayne Tucker, reed player Jasper Dutz, and guitarist Rafael Rosa—into continuously evolving intricate designs. The capable guests (trombonist Sam Chess, vibraphonist Jake Chapman, pianist Jeremy Corren) expand Rosenblum’s creative options.
His skills as a composer and especially as an arranger are apparent. But the full potential of the Nebula Project is most clearly revealed in its interpretations of great songs by others, songs with lyrics that linger in the mind, even in instrumental versions. Neil Young’s “Philadelphia” has always been heartbreaking. Rosenblum gives it to Chess’ passionate trombone, to his own ascendant piano, and to Rosa’s surging guitar, then lets the whole band close it softly, like a prayer. Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” has been rediscovered by Rosenblum’s under-30 jazz generation. The chart here, for sextet plus Corren’s singing piano, is airy yet lush. All the solos are vivid but Rosenblum’s accordion redefines “Somewhere.” Played on the accordion, all songs sound sweeter and more wistful, even those you thought you knew.