TODD NELSON - Here
by J Hunter
Who’d have thought 30 years ago that Rod Stewart would be making his living crooning the Great American Songbook? My guess would be nobody. Nevertheless, for any number of reasons – unemployment, the economy, or just out of plain old boredom – many people nowadays are feeling the need to re-invent themselves professionally, and musicians are no exception. The best local example is guitarist Todd Nelson, known primarily for his time in one of the region’s more legendary bands, the Units (later known as Fear of Strangers). Nelson’s still rocking out with the Rumdummies, but he just dropped a Smart Bomb called Here, and it’s one of my favorite things in the world – a jazz disc you can drive to.
Yes, in the right conditions, it’s possible to get your auto on to almost any kind of music; for instance, the combination of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”, a quality car audio system, and Route 2 in the Berkshires is purely intoxicating. But for anyone with an affinity for rock & roll, good driving music demands a strong backbeat and a groove that gets your head nodding. Here delivers that right from the jump with “Lois is Out.” Manuel Quintana’s drumbeat is lead-pencil simple, as is Kyle Esposito’s fretless bass, and Nelson opens the festivities with nice chunky chords that give the melody a robust foundation. His subsequent solo is free of the usual “LOOK AT ME” acrobatics that tend to pervade guitar-based instrumentals. “Lois” is all about the groove, which stays straight, true, and head-bobbingly good.
And the groove rarely stops on Here, though it is nicely varied. “Wheels across Sonoma” recalls music from one of the Pat Metheny Group’s best albums, the soaring travelogue American Garage: You get the sensation of hot wind blowing through the sunroof as your car cruises through the Mexican countryside, maybe on the way to California. “Crestfallen” is a bluesy waltz with a big fat beat, while “Into the House” is a ballad with a spine of iron. (It’s also a marvelous portrait of a place filled with peace, love, and – above all – safety.) The funfest (“Volts” one of two former Units numbers Nelson re-worked) would fit right in at a surf-music revival, and although the opening to “The Blacksmith” has a very meditative quality, the speaker buzz in the background transmits a not-so-subliminal message that says, “This one goes to 11.”
But that’s the thing: It doesn’t! Nelson’s not out to revive a form of guitar jazz that was ancient in the ‘80s and is practically prehistoric now, so blowing the doors off their hinges is not on the agenda. He wraps his jazz in the stripped-out ethic of punk, and the result is far from the same old thing; rather, it’s both rich and elegant at the same time. The disc’s only “weak’ point is that Nelson’s is the only strong solo voice: Esposito’s spotlight moments may give the pieces variation, but his efforts are only serviceable. That said, adding a keyboard or a reed player would have robbed Here of the uncomplicated vibe that is its best feature. Happily, Nelson realizes that yesterday’s answers are not what we need today. Here is not your grandfather’s fusion disc, and that’s something worth firing up your ride and heading for the highway… even if you do need snow tires to stay on the road.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.