The Sky Remains
Label: Origin Records
Bridges And Tunnels; The Sky Remains; On The Sidewalk; The Architect; Ah, Los Angeles; Lost Souls Of Saturn; Pitseleh; Pacific Ocean Park; Run; Stairways.
Additional Personnel / Information
Josh Nelson: piano, Nord Electro 3, vocals; Anthony Wilson: guitar, vocals; Kathleen Grace: vocals (1, 2, 7, 9); Lillian Sengpiehl: vocals; Josh Johnson: alto saxophone, flute; Chris Lawrence: trumpet, flugelhorn; Brian Walsh: Bb clarinet, bass clarinet; Larry Goldings: Hammond B-3 organ; Alex Boneham: bass; Dan Schnelle: drums; Aaron Serafty: percussion.
While films like Manhattan and Cafe Society stand as Woody Allen’s love letter to his beloved New York City, The Sky Remains stands as pianist-composer-arranger and native Angeleno Josh Nelson’s love letter to Los Angeles. Each of the 10 story-driven tunes on this thematic album, the third in Nelson’s Discovery Project series, tells a tale of some of the hidden gems and little-known stories about the composer’s hometown. From the lurid tale behind benefactor and namesake of L.A.’s famous Griffith Park to the sad transition of wondrous Pacific Ocean Park to an eyesore on the beach to the forgotten, bittersweet story of Mack Robinson, a silver medal winner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics (he came in second to Jesse Owens) who was also the brother of baseball legend Jackie Robinson and later became a hero in his own right through his civic activism on behalf of the City of Angels, The Sky Remains blends narrative and music in persuasive fashion. Throughout this ambitious outing, Nelson and his talented crew of fellow Angelenos convey sentiment about the city and its treasures while uncovering lost history and acknowledging a few L.A. icons along the way, including Griffith J. Griffith, Mack Robinson, journalist-activist Charlotta Bass, enigmatic singer-songwriter Elliott Smith and big band composer and exotica advocate Russ Garcia. “There is some preservation of history happening here,” says Nelson of The Sky Remains. “You can glean future predictions or future growth of the city by looking back at history, learning and growing from that and building a new future. So many things about L.A. have left an indelible impression on me, and there seems to be so many themes yet to be explored that I think I could almost do another volume. There’s a whole bunch of other stories to look at but these were the ones that rose to the top of the heap.” Produced by Nelson and guitarist Anthony Wilson, The Sky Remains also contains a multi-media component in the video vignettes and photos that are presented in live performances. “These projects under the Discovery Project umbrella all feel very cinematic to me, and they’re getting moreso with each one,” Nelson explains. “I envision this one like 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.” Two years in the making, Nelson’s latest is his definitive yet unapologetically sentimental statement on Los Angeles. “I’m definitely in awe of what’s in this city and it’s quiet history,” he says. “Maybe it’s just a product of having been born here, but I’m still feeling like I’m discovering new things and stories about it that were just sitting right under my nose. And hopefully I’m exposing these stories to people that might be interested in learning about some of this stuff.” The collection kicks off with a sense of mystery and awe on “Bridges and Tunnels, fueled by some swirling counterpoint and featuring the wordless vocals of Kathleen Grace in synch with Chris Lawrence’s trumpet. Pianist Nelson and guitarist Wilson also exchange flowing lines in the extended solo section before the piece builds to a dynamic peak. “I actually came up with that tune when I was driving over bridges and through tunnels in Los Angeles, trying to get ideas. That was a really fun part of this project — just driving around, walking up the stairways, hiking in Griffith Park and exploring all these places that I was trying to point at.” The wistful title track opens with a poignant duet between Nelson and Grace that recalls their touching collaboration on “How You Loved Me On Mars” from 2015’s Exploring Mars. It proceeds to tell the sensational story of Griffith J. Griffith, who shot his wife in a drunken, paranoid rage. But the twist of this tale is that it’s told from the point of view Mrs. Griffith. “I didn’t want it to be a creepy macabre song,” says Nelson. “I wanted it to somehow be like this damaged love song from Tina’s perspective. And by doing that we explore those themes of looking back at a love and how things used to be, how the city changes, how people change or not change, and the sky remains the same.” Saxophonist Josh Johnson’s “On the Sidewalk” opens with some fugue-like statements from the horns before Lawrence takes a bold trumpet solo and Nelson follows with a glistening piano solo. “I asked Josh to contribute a piece to the record because he’s a fantastic compeer-musician,” says Nelson. “He moved here from Chicago to attend the Thelonious Monk Institute and he’s been on the scene here for five years now. For this project I asked him to contribute a short piece with an L.A. theme, so he did some research and found out about a lady named Charlotta Bass, who was an African-American newspaper editor in the early days of Los Angeles. She talked about issues relating to the African American community of the day and other local neighborhood issues in her column called ‘On The Sidewalk,’ which she wrote for The California Eagle. She was definitely a pioneer in her field.” Nelson’s “The Architect” is a Latin-tinged number that reflects some of the beautiful Spanish- influenced architecture in the City of Angels. At one point in this rhythmically-charged number, the rest of the band drops out as Nelson, drummer Dan Schnelle and bassist Alex Boneham continue as a piano trio. One of the jazzier offerings of the album, “The Architect” features outstanding solos from alto saxophonist Johnson, bassist Boneham and drummer Schnelle, who wails over a band obstinato at the end. “That piece was inspired by my husband Jessie,” says Nelson. “He and I got married a little over a year ago in Palm Springs and we’ve been together for eight years now. He’s an architect who works for a firm in Santa Monica. It was through Jessie that I got to know the world of West Coast architecture, and I was particularly inspired by the Spanish styled architecture in L.A. So you hear that Spanish element in the music, and I was trying to mix a little bit of classical feel in there to try and reflect the grandeur of the city as well.” “Ah, Los Angeles,” inspired by the John Fante book Ask the Dust, about a young writer’s struggle in 1930s L.A., carries a lonesome, somewhat melancholy vibe and features a brilliant guitar solo from Wilson. The Russ Garcia composition “Lost Souls of Saturn,” from the 1959 album Fantastica, is lovingly rendered by Nelson and his crew to reflect the fascination with Polynesian tiki culture that took hold in L.A. during the ‘30s. All the members get to stretch over the churning son montuno groove that Nelson conjures up in the middle of this piece of exotica. “It’s a little tip of the hat to the whole Polynesian tiki invasion on the West Coast and L.A. And visually, that one really works in a really cool way because it’s just so full of color and all that iconic typography and fonts and the tiki stuff.” Lillian Sengpiehl contributes some free, almost speaking parts and then Anthony responds with the melody in tempo. “It’s kind of a responsorial,” says Nelson, “about the artist’s struggle to figure out how to live in the city, be a part of it, live with it, but still get their art across. And then it builds to this big anthemic, triumphant kind of feel towards the end of it.” Their faithful reading of Elliott Smith’s “Pitselah” (Yiddish for ‘little one’ or ‘dear one’) pays homage to the enigmatic L.A. indie singer-songwriter who died from a suicide in 2003 at age 34. “This one seemed to fit into the show because of this bittersweet kind of longing that permeates his music. It also ties in with the idea of people coming here to realize their dreams and then something happens to upset that. It’s about people’s hopes and dreams not really getting realized.” Nelson adds that Smith is a ‘90s icon whose artful contributions are revered by a certain segment of Los Angeles. “He’s just an interesting artist, and I wanted to point to another musician that lived and died in Los Angeles. He’s kind of a local musical legend around Los Angeles — a tortured soul who struggled with a lot of depression and drug use. I’m kind of fascinated by that lone kind of tragic hero, whether its Captain Ahab from ‘Moby Dick’ or Jack Nicholson from Chinatown…someone who’s looking for answers and struggling…I just love that. There’s something about that achetype that just really is attractive to me.” “Pacific Ocean Park,” which opens with the haunting, Ives-ian sound of merry-go-round against the melodic theme, portrays the plight of the one-time nautical-themed amusement park on a pier in Santa Monica that fell into disrepair and was ultimately abandoned by 1967. “I never got a chance to see it because it burned down 50 years ago,” says Nelson. “This tune represents a kind of haunting but somehow still nostalgic amusement park culture that is present in the Southland, whether you’re looking at Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios or Disneyland. There’s so many amusement parks around here, and Pacific Ocean Park was a major center for people to go have fun for many, many years. Musically, we didn’t try to ‘jazz’ it too much. I just wanted to keep it in that circus theatre vibe with a dark twist. It’s a park that had a weird demise with a big fire, and those images of the burned down rides that they just left in the ocean are so haunting and sinister, especially when juxtaposed against a perfectly blue L.A. sky.’ “Run,” is about the sad saga of Mack Robinson. “His story of coming back to L.A. after the ’36 Berlin Olympics, not being able to get a job and ending up working for the city as a custodian…it’s just kind of bittersweet and sad. Someone asked me, ‘Is that song about running away from your problems?’ And I’m said, ‘No, it’s more about ‘do what you love, do what you’re good at, find out what your calling is.’ So it’s really more inspirational and hopeful, I hope.” The album’s swinging closer, “Stairways,” about the 400 historic stairways spread throughout Los Angeles’ steep hillside neighborhoods, features brilliant solos from Lawrence, Johnson and Nelson and blends in a little slide guitar by Wilson at the tag. “Anthony did that as an overdub, and I thought it was really cool,” says Nelson. “It adds this kind of weird Sergio Leone spaghetti western vibe to it a little bit.” Following its September release, Nelson plans to take The Sky Remains on the road for a Midwestern tour while also playing the group’s usual haunts on the West Coast. “It’s easy enough to do in Los Angeles, San Diego and even up in the Bay Area, but to get it out on the road is a bit tricky,” he says. “And who knows if people are going to bite with an L.A.-themed presentation. But the themes of this record are, I think, still universal. These stories will be relevant and relatable for any kind of city that’s growing, even though it’s concentrating on Los Angeles. Of course, my goal is that the music stand on its own apart from the live video presentation. It’s still a record that you can listen to and enjoy without the visuals.” Nelson cites a free podcast called “Hidden History of Los Angeles” as the seed to this The Sky Remains project. “It started with me reading about the sensational trial of Griffith J. Griffith. And then I reached out to the guy who runs the podcast, who’s name is Robert Peterson. He illuminated me to the Mack Robinson story, about Jackie Robinson’s brother. And Robert ended up being a part of this project. He actually wrote a script for the live show and he serves as the narrator who introduces each segment, each little chapter. And the liner notes that he wrote for the CD are like little introductions so people can get the story for each song instead of it just being a title and the music. I wanted to bring in more of a narrative for this one and Robert’s been a really big part of making that happen.” With The Sky Remains, Nelson has made a conceptual leap from his previous outings. “I feel that this is one of my strongest ones, if not the strongest,” he says. “And visually and storytelling-wise, it feels really good when we do it live.” The Sky Remains follows Nelson’s previous concept album, 2015’s Exploring Mars, which explored musical themes on the Red Planet and featured spectacular NASA/JPL Martian video footage. His 2011 album Discoveries introduced a pairing of classic science fiction ephemera with new compositions for a brass and wind ensemble. In 2016, he collaborated with longtime vocal partner Sara Gazarek on the duet project Dream in Blue. His earlier recordings include 2004’s Anticipation, 2007’s Let it Go and 2009’s I Hear a Rhapsody. Born and raised in Southern California, Nelson maintains an active and creative schedule as a jazz pianist, composer, teacher and recording artist. He has performed with some of the most respected names in jazz, including Kurt Elling, John Pizzarelli, Benny Golson, Sheila Jordan, John Clayton, George Mraz, Jeff Hamilton, Dave Koz, Joe Chambers and Peter Erskine. He has also worked with film composer Michael Kamen and actors Eric Idle, Clint Eastwood, and Jon Lovitz. Nelson toured with legendary vocalist Natalie Cole for six years and continues to tour with vocalist Sara Gazarek, accordionist Richard Galliano, saxophonist Tom Scott, multi-instrumentalist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and violinist Christian Howes. He taught jazz for four years at Soka University and more recently at Cal State University Northridge.
- The Sky Remains by Dan Bilawsky