By: Jazz Journalist/Dee Dee McNeil

Concert on Saturday, January 28, 2017

Remembering the last time I attended The Blue Whale, I arrived early in order to get a good seat. The place is generally packed. For those of you who haven’t joined the youthful and high energy downtown Los Angeles scene, for a moment you might feel you are in Tokyo or New York. The Weller Court Plaza is near a five-star hotel and sparkles with green and blue lights inside a tunnel like entrance off of 2nd Street. The Little Tokyo courtyard is peppered with small shops and the second and third floors feature a multitude of restaurant choices. A huge amber umbrella stretches above the courtyard and many people sit on the outdoor benches, even though the night is a little windy and quite cool.

Doors open at 8pm and I find a cushion against the wall where I can rest my back. I’m surprised to see that the club has added concert seating in fold-out chairs. When it first opened, there was only Japanese style seating on low-to-the-ground square cushions. For Westerners, the added seating is a big improvement. The unelevated stage space was cluttered with music stands and chairs. A grand piano sat stage front, a guitar propped-up near bye; drums, vocal microphones off to the side and a projector of his CD Cover, “The Discovery Project” in black and white sat on a movie screen hanging above the piano. It was also reflected as a backdrop behind the band. The standing room only crowd was half way to the door by the time Josh Nelson and his ensemble took to the stage.

Nelson featured a narrator, Robert Peterson, who is also a historian. For this multi-media experience, Petersen stepped to the mic and introduced us to pieces of Los Angeles history, while Nelson tinkled the keys beneath the narration. This introduced us to “Bridges and Tunnels”. The screen filled up with black and white movie scenes, famous L.A. tunnels and bridges featured predominately, while the original composition serenaded us. The collage of moving images was punctuated by a harmonic horn section.

Nelson welcomed the crowd after the first song and told us he was raised in Long Beach and loves Los Angeles. Thus, began this tribute to the city of his upbringing. At thirty-eight-years young, he has already performed as musical director for Natalie Cole, accompanied Sheila Jordan, Sara Gazarek, played with Dave Koz, Kurt Elling, John Pizzarelli, Lewis Nash, Peter Erskine, John Clayton, Benny Golson and too many more to list here. Nelson is a well-respected, jazz pianist, composer, educator and recording artist. He introduced us to his band. His guitarist, the son of the late, great, big band leader, Gerald Wilson, Anthony Wilson. Alex Boneham on bass; Dan Schnelle on drums; Brian Walsh on clarinet; Josh Johnson on saxophone; Chris Lawrence manning the trumpet; Kathleen Grace & Lillian Sengpiehl , both featured vocalists. Nelson thanked them all, including Travis Flournoy for his live video projections and Jesse Ottinger and Claudia Carballada for their scenography.

Peterson, the historian and narrator, once again stood behind the mic to give us a brief history of Griffith Park. We were told it was named for an alcoholic man who terrorized his wife, Tina. Because of his jealous personality, he wound up shooting the poor woman in her face one evening during a drunken rage. Although she survived and he was incarcerated, we learned that Griffith only spent two years in jail for this heinous act and built the City of Los Angeles, (and the political powers that be), the famed Griffith Park Theater and Griffith Park Conservatory. There was a collective gasp in the room.

The song that followed featured lyrics that professed, “The cities different but the sky remains the same” and was performed beautifully by guest vocalist, Kathleen Grace. Drummer Dan Schnelle slapped a back beat into the song and Nelson told us that featured vocalist, Grace, had co-written the piece with him.
The next composition, (“Stairways”) celebrated the Los Angeles’ four-hundred-and-fifty historic stairways that wind up and down hillside areas. On this original composition, Nelson made the 88-keys climb, while we watched black and white films of men in suits running and sometimes struggling up brick and cement stairs built into L.A.’s hilly terrain. This song featured amazingly beautiful solos by trumpeter, Chris Lawrence and saxophonist, josh Johnson. The groove in this song was warm and washed across the audience like island waves. Throughout, bassist, Alex Boneham, swings like a pendulum and was rich with tonality. In the movie sequence, when a woman in a black dress obviously struggles up the stairs on some hillside, Nelson plucks the grand piano strings to create a musical ambience along with experienced and stellar chops on the keys. I found humor in the film, but swallowed my laughter, because the musical arrangement was so stunning that laughing was inappropriate.

“Water” was the next topic and referenced the Roman Polanski film of 1974, “Chinatown,” nominated for eleven Academy Awards. Nelson’s arrangement was ripe with blues. Josh danced atop the multi-media and rhythm trio like a finger ballerina; twirling, spinning, skipping triplets up and down the ivory and ebony keys. His fingers caressed waterfalls out of the instrument before us. He made the ‘water’ topic came alive. Trumpeter Lawrence once again was awe inspiring, as was Anthony Wilson on guitar. Underneath, the splash of drums colored the film of the Los Angeles aqueduct bursting. As the water breached and flooded L.A., the band became Avant Garde, letting modern jazz and improvisation spill across the room. On film, the dam broke and their music exemplified that power, freedom, urgency and destruction. Impressive!

There was a visual artist (Claudia Carballada) who began to draw during one of the musical presentations and that was interesting.

All in all, it was a highly creative and innovative production. Jazz and multi-media make for a happy marriage.

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