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Pianist Josh Nelson on "Exploring Mars," performing live




Pianist and composer Josh Nelson
Pianist and composer Josh Nelson
Jonathan Ellis

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What does Mars sound like on a piano? Pianist Josh Nelson came up with one answer on his latest album: Exploring Mars.

Nelson has performed and collaborated with musicians like Jeff Hamilton, Peter Erskine and vocalist Natalie Cole. When performing live, the pianist and composer often includes a live videographer to collaborate with his band.

Off-Ramp contributor Sean J. O'Connell went to Nelson's home to talk about the newest album. Here are some highlights:

On writing an album about Mars

Mars is awesome, lets just start with that. Second, it's been in the news quite a lot. For me, it was the landing of the Curiosity rover in August 2012 that kind of seeded the project. And then with all of the Space X stuff going on, with trials of people hopefully populating that planet someday... it seemed like an apropos time to release something with that subject matter.

It all started with "Martian Chronicles" — Ray Bradbury and his vision for the Martian fantasy world definitely got me going before that. 

I really love the romanticism, the idea of musically reflecting upon the planet. But at the same time, paying homage to someone like Gustav Holst, who took Mars and the astrological meaning of the planets, and putting my own spin on it.

 On translating the concept of Mars to music

For this record, I would take other records — or also films, like "Invaders from Mars" from the 1950s — and just put it on and just start playing. Solo piano wise, [it sounds] romantic and kind of other worldly. But I really love the idea of just kind of improvising, especially with the films of Mars, or the JPL/NASA stuff that they've been putting out from the Curiosity rover landing — that's super inspirational to me as well. 

 On performing live with a videographer

I love film, I love theater, and I just wanted to marry the two with my music. Growing up a Disney kid, my dad was an Imagineer with Disney. My brother and I got to be the first guys to ride on a lot of rides at Disneyland, testing them out. And we were fascinated by the theatrics that go into it. And the mechanics, but also the resulting art — the feeling that you get from seeing something like this.

So, yeah. We have the Discovery Project. I'm surprised more  jazz artists don't do it, actually. Because there's a serious visual component that I think a lot of them deal with. It's really fun for the band. It's fun for the audience. It's a really fun journey from beginning to end. 

 On the impact video has on the musicians' performance

Absolutely, there's different performances, yeah. They respond visually and then it manifests different sonically when they perform it. I actually like really hearing the tunes performed with video and without to see how they're different and to see if the guys are, in fact, reacting.