Bridges is the first full-length debut, following 2017’s EP Wanderlust, for talented alto saxophonist and clarinetist Ana Nelson from Indiana who points to such formidable mentors as Walter Smith III, Greg Ward, and Gary Bartz, among several others. Originally trained in classical music, the album title is Nelson’s way of expressing a program that includes jazz, classical, and Brazilian offerings. Two of her seven originals have the accompaniment of a string quartet while the other five feature a conventional jazz quartet or quintet. Present on all but one composition is her musical and life partner, Jamaal Baptiste on piano, who also co-produced the album. Bassist Brendan Keller-Tuberg and drummer Carter Pearson are aboard for the first four.
She first introduces the string quartet (Marina Alba Lopez, Jodi Dunn, Alice Ford, and Kevin Flynn) accompanying her alto for the haunting “Blue Flower,” again revealing shimmering pianism from Baptiste. The string quartet returns for Nelson’s soaring, expressive excursion on clarinet in “Let the Light In,” a distinctively classical leaning piece while she gets downright celebratory in the Brazilian flavored clarinet -piano duet, “NelBap Choro.” To close the program, playing alto, she proves that she can swing in straight-ahead jazz style, inviting her tenorist father, Bill Nelson, to form a quintet with her, Baptiste, bassist Jeremy Allen and drummer Steve Houghton on “Fruit of the Groove.”
Through these eclectic offerings, one gets the sense that while Nelson is fluent in these three styles, that she favors classical and clarinet. Her jazz chops are fluid, and she possesses rich, clear tone on both instruments, but she seems to still be evolving that side. We note that she and Baptiste are a performing in the NelBap Duo which specializes in jazz and Brazilian music. It would make sense that Nelson wants to begin by presenting this wide menu, perhaps specializing in one of the genres in future recordings. Nelson also specializes in modern clarinet works and let’s face it, we don’t have many jazz musicians left who feature clarinet as the main instrument. She’s got the chops to add to those precious few.
- Jim Hynes