Pianist Josh Nelson, who’s coming to the region for a pair of shows next weekend, keeps up to date on science and technology matters such as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. But his thoughtful, clearheaded music seems to come from a realm that isn’t so fast-moving.
In this digital world, “I’m kind of an analog guy when it comes down to it,” he says.
The old, heavy instrument suits his needs very well. “I never got bit by the electronic keyboard bug …,” he says. “The piano is my sound, my vibe.”
The vibe will be heard Saturday, Feb. 24, at the Blue Room when Nelson is a guest with tenor saxophonist Matt Otto’s group. And it will be heard Sunday, Feb. 25, at the University of Kansas in a recital with soprano Lillian Sengpiehl, a polystylistic event where the two perform classical, cabaret and jazz.
Otto, who’s originally a fellow West Coaster, and Nelson go back a long way. “We worked together quite a bit in the early 2000s, playing and recording. I was on some of his gigs, and he was on some of mine. I love his music and his whole aesthetic.”
As for Sengpiehl, a University of Kansas alum, together they’ll perform “her more operatic, classical repertoire; some German lieder; some Kurt Weill art songs; Harold Arlen, Leonard Bernstein, Copland, some Sondheim. A couple of my songs. Just stuff we love. I hope the classical purists are open to interpretation. We’re experimenting with cross-genre pollination.”
That pollination has been going on in Nelson’s head for a long time. His parents were into musical theater, and he has performed as Peter Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol.” His grandfather shared his love of jazz via Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum records. And the family heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl regularly.
Nelson got serious about jazz in his late teens. He’d been playing trumpet in school bands but found himself thinking about the piano. Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans and Michel Petrucciani shaped his stylistic thinking, his uncluttered playing.
He’s worked mainly in and around Los Angeles, leading his own bands when he can. (Though he was one of the last performers to play at the late lamented Jardine’s in Kansas City; he remembers showing up for a gig and finding the door locked.)
He has developed a reputation as a superb accompanist for singers. Some Kansas City listeners may recall hearing him with singer Sara Gazarek. He was the last pianist to tour with Natalie Cole. Lately he has been touring with Alicia Olatuja. “I love accompanying. I love being the leader, but I love being the support system for singers or instrumentalists. Maybe my musical theater background has me enjoying that.”
The gigs with singers and the gigs with instrumentalists may be very different — to wit, Saturday’s at the Blue Room and Sunday’s in Lawrence — but, “It’s all related,” Nelson says.
The Matt Otto quartet with Nelson performs at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24, at the Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St. Tickets are $10; see americanjazzmuseum.org/events for more information. Sengpiehl and Nelson perform at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 25, at the Pavilion at Lied Center at the University of Kansas. Tickets are $30 for adults, $16 for students; call 785-864-2787 or check lied.ku.edu.
▪ Trombonist, composer and arranger John Fedchock, once a star of the Woody Herman band, has become one of the people who makes modern big-band music happen on the New York scene. But he has been in the Midwest for the last few days, wearing his educator hat, teaching in clinics and master classes. He’ll put on his performing hat for the late shift at the Green Lady Lounge, 1809 Grand Blvd., at 10:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18.
▪ The Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St., also has percussionist Pablo Sanhueza and the KC Latin Jazz All Stars at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22, and bassist Tyrone Clark’s trio at 8:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23.
▪ The Green Lady Lounge also has singer Eboni Fondren at 6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18; organist Chris Hazelton’s trio at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 19, followed by the Villinger/Schlamb Trio at 10:30 p.m.; guitarist Matt Hopper at 6 and 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20, followed by the Spaits & Perkins Trio at 11:30 p.m.; organist Ken Lovern’s OJT at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21, followed by the Tyrone Clark Trio at 10:30 p.m.; Hazelton’s trio at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22, followed by tenor saxophonist Stephen Martin’s trio at 10:30 p.m.; pianist Tim Whitmer’s quartet at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23, followed by Embrey, Lovern & Strait downstairs at 8:30 p.m., Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7 upstairs at 9 p.m. and organist Matt Villinger’s Trio around midnight; keyboardist Jackie Myers’ trio at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24, followed by Lovern’s trio at 6 p.m., Guitar Elation upstairs at 8 p.m., keyboardist Mitch Towne’s trio downstairs at 9 p.m. and Martin’s quartet at 11:30 p.m.
▪ Next door at the other piece of John Scott’s jazz empire, the Black Dolphin at 1813 Grand Blvd., trumpeter Chalis O’Neal’s Vitamin C performs at 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23, and pianist Roger Wilder’s quartet with singer Havilah Bruders performs at 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24.
▪ The reconstituted Boulevard Big Band plays at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the Westport CoffeeHouse Theater, 4010 Pennsylvania Ave.
Joe Klopus, 816-234-4751