Josh Nelson: LA Stories – Live At Sam First

LA-based pianist plays modernised hard bop and some Mary Poppins with, among others, saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Larry Koonse


Pianist and composer Josh Nelson is a survivor of a Los Angeles jazz scene decimated by Covid lockdown and a sluggish local economy. Also spared is the city’s Sam First jazz club, which has recorded Nelson and others on its own label to suggest a way out of the gloom.

LA Stories recalls The Sky Remains, Nelson’s 2017 album, which was part of his multi-media Discovery Project focusing on LA history. The new album continues the assembling of historical snapshots, in which Nelson proves himself to be a composer and bandleader of instinctive flexibility not least in adapting an always animated and sometimes florid piano style to extra-musical tributes.

A few complex tunes are arranged with sensitivity for how his piano, Walter Smith III’s Eddie Harris-style tenor sax and Larry Koonse’s guitar work together, with Luca Alemanno’s bass and Dan Schnelle’s drums palpable presences. That complexity takes on almost binary form in Red Car Reminiscing, about the Pacific Electric Railway, with each instrument taking on the theme first heard on sax and guitar together and in the second half, amidst contrapuntal heat, mirrored by bass and piano in unison.

Nelson genuflects before Kirk Douglas, star of the film Lonely Are The Brave, in the eponymous chart. He has guitar with sax to open before a brooding piano solo gives way to one on eloquent sax, with added guitar in unison. Tiburcio is a feature for singer Gaby Moreno, who delivers a heartfelt and clearly enunciated lyric for what is surely an acceptance of the view that Tiburcio Vasquez was not a late-19th century bandido but a battler against Anglo-American oppression. She also sings Feed The Birds (in Spanish and English), from the Sherman brothers’ Mary Poppins, with undeniable charm, abetted by Koonse on acoustic. Old Friend is a sax lament with piano and guitar in touching attendance and Lullaby For Ludwig has piano and guitar working creatively together before all join in with almost therapeutic exuberance.

LA Stories might allude to LA history but its message is assertive in showing that, for the revival and survival of jazz in that city, all is not lost and is of the moment.

Forward Momentum; Tiburcio; Old Friend; Lonely Are The Brave; Red Car Reminiscing; Feed The Birds; Lullaby For Ludwig; Travel Town; Spirit (52.09)
Nelson (p); Walter Smith III (ts); Gaby Moreno (v); Larry Koonse (g); Luca Alemanno (b); Dan Schnelle (d). Los Angeles, 18-19 February 2022.
Sam First Records