A new labor of love from a local improv trio

NEQ: Todd Nelson (guitar), Kyle Esposito (bass) and Manuel Quintana (drums). (Photos by Michael Joyce)

On NEQ’s new record Nevertheless, this trio of leading musicians from the Hudson Valley explore the unique dimensions, challenges and expressive opportunities of a highly marginalized genre: instrumental rock and fusion. In doing so, they wrestle with fundamental questions about the place of instrumental music in today’s music market and in the hearts and minds of listeners.

Can music without moving mouths really connect with popular audiences and popular taste, offering something like emotional identification, personality, and song catharsis? Or is instrumental rock music – as beautiful and uplifting as it often can be – generally reserved for a small, knowledgeable audience of gamblers, intellectuals and shred-eyed spectators?

Sadly, the market itself ruled on this issue a long time ago. Instrumental music is, with very few exceptions, commercial poison, and those who would engage in its disciplines had better plan to make the most of their lives as music store teachers and clinicians.

Kyle Esposito on bass

Even jazz – America’s great instrumental music – hasn’t been true chart-topping pop since the swing era, after which bebop drove out most of its casual audience in the same way that Arnold Schoenberg and other modernist composers sent classical fans rushing back to the comforts of the past. With good reason, the jazz economy increasingly resembles that of classical music – an economy of grants, scholarships, residencies, tenure-track positions and prestigious French prizes.

As they bristle at the very sound of the word “shredder”, Todd Nelson (guitar), Kyle Esposito (bass) and Manuel Quintana (drums) absolutely display their formidable skills as players throughout this record. They are all in-demand local sidemen who have also signed up nationally as touring and studio players. This deeply collaborative project is a labor of love.

They shine individually and collectively. But what’s so dizzyingly refreshing about Nevertheless this is how they stretch themselves as producers, sound designers and arrangers – how seriously they take the challenge of telling stories and evoking moods, evoking places and times, and to connect with the imagination and emotions of listeners, while honoring the well-honed power trio improvisation at the heart of the company

It’s quite a balancing act. Across eleven witty, stylish and playful benchmark compositions plus a remix, NEQ makes the case that their music is for the people. While the song forms are indeed long and the solos are indeed numerous, NEQ treats each song as its own world, full of surprise, thematic development, immersive texture and plenty of elegant and adventurous melodies thanks to the main author Nelson. I would say anyone who has ever enjoyed a Morricone soundtrack, a surf record or the genius of Jobim or Piazzolla should be able to find delights here.

Starting with the wink, stylized bump rock of the first track, “Dune Buggy”, NEQ treats each song as a sui generis construction of workshops. With a wheezy electric organ, a completely disarming timpani solo out of nowhere, and an oblique, jet-set-chic pop melody over super hip chord changes, “Dune Buggy” sets the rules that will prevail the rest of the way. This buggy will go where it wants. Stay alert.

Dune Buggy is followed by “Afternoon Map,” an unfussy and utterly gorgeous odd-meter post-rock track that isn’t too bothered by cheeky stylistic references. It’s about Nelson’s live ensemble chemistry and expansive harmonic imagination.

So it crosses the file. For each stylized black Latin tune, stumbling blues or cinematic mood piece like the superb ballad “Albatross”, there’s a direct, live drive like “Camoplaid” or a nasty groove tune like “Threshold”, playing on the core strength of the band.

Manuel Quintana on drums

That the album should groove hard will surprise no one who has heard this band live in local venues over the years. The surprise may come from how well thought out and developed this record is in terms of composition and arrangement, how much of a studio work of art it is.

“It was a conscious evolution in Todd’s songwriting that lent itself to a more composed approach to arrangement when recording songs,” Esposito explains. “Although I don’t remember ever talking about it, we were all ready to come out of the ‘head – solos – head, gotta be able to play it as a trio’ tyranny that crossed our choices before, even though the material always had been eclectic and difficult to pin down stylistically.

Quintana adds, “We wanted all recordings to be a representation of the song in its fullest form. We didn’t want the song to be restricted or have any boundaries in place, especially in the creative process. The limitations are good too, but personally I prefer to give the song what it wants as much as possible even if it sounds crazy. For example, if the song calls for a string section, we’ll have a string section (or a brilliant keyboardist), however we play that live or if it goes with the vibe of the band or the rest of the songs. The goal was always the song. We didn’t have any limiting concepts in mind when we started this.

“By 2018, the band for me had reached a point where its approach needed to change,” Nelson explains, “We tried to expand the lineup for the final year of that time. But the new material we were making was misguided from my go.

Todd Nelson on guitar

“The first new song I wrote for this record was ‘Prime Time is Over.’ I had just bought Apple Logic. And that song felt like a new direction for me. it’s also very funky. The studio flourishes are mostly Manuel’s. I tried to bring in a variety of guitar sounds, and he and Kyle were enthusiastic about it.

“As far as compositional diversity goes,” Nelson continues, “it seemed pretty normal to do it that way. There was no angst about it that I remember. Once we agreed on that approach, we were more free to absorb it all. If all you write are songs that people sing, then every melody has to be singable. If that’s not a consideration, then many more types of melody are possible.

In order to represent the live material, NEQ has added several players, including ubiquitous keyboard genius Ross Rice, who plays several memorable parts on Neverthelessand veteran producer and guitarist Danny Blume.

“It was really great to have Danny and Ross for the live shows,” Nelson says. “They have the technique to do the required parts and the imagination to go solo and put their own stamp on things.”

NEQ Nevertheless is available at all online outlets, and the band is currently gearing up for a few dates in the spring.

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