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Josh Nelson: Live at Blue Whale, Volume 1 (Steel Bird)

A review of the pianist's album featuring several pieces from his Discovery Project

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Josh Nelson: Live at Blue Whale, Volume 1
The cover of Live at Blue Whale, Volume 1 by Josh Nelson

With the closure of Los Angeles’ Blue Whale came the end of an era. For approximately 11 years—from the time Joon Lee opened the venue in late 2009 to the moment, at the tail end of 2020, that he announced he’d be closing up shop—that beloved space served as a haven for creative expression, nurturing some of the best and brightest living on the West Coast or just passing through. It was in this setting that Josh Nelson developed the Discovery Project—a multimedia exploration of the nexus between music, art, science, history, and unfettered imagination—and around 20 of the pianist’s (approximately) 200 appearances at Blue Whale were focused on that wide-ranging work. This album, presenting several pieces culled from two latter-day Discovery Project shows, offers up nostalgia for both beauty found and a refuge lost.   

Opening with the lengthy “Double Helix,” Nelson and company wink at the three scientists who discovered the two-strand structure of the DNA molecule by grooving along in 3/2 as a string of soloists parade on by. Gentler spirits prevail on “Our Electromagnetic Hearts,” a gliding beauty highlighting bassist Alex Boneham’s tender soloing and the simpatico relationship between Nelson and guitarist Larry Koonse. Range of character mirrors subject on “Peter Sellers,” where Brian Walsh’s clarinet delivers a heartfelt melody that’s held up at the appearance(s) of a whimsical riff for piano and guitar. And cosmic wonders surface in “’Oumuamua,” a trippy odyssey referencing and embodying the first interstellar object detected in our solar system. The album’s closer—“Bluewhale Dives Deep”—switches things up by departing from the chosen scenery in order to honor it. A wistful trio track recorded in a studio, it’s the perfect coda for this loving tribute.

Learn more about Live at Blue Whale, Volume 1 here!

Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.