Josh Nelson never planned on a career in Jewish music. Although he reached early adulthood with a deep commitment to Judaism, his music background focused on classical training in the double bass but included little exposure to contemporary Jewish music.
That was before he went to work, after his first year of college, at Camp Tevye, an unaffiliated Jewish camp in New Hampshire.
“Kids were singing all these songs I had never heard. I was completely unexposed,” Nelson said. He was hearing for the first time the songs of such artists as Debbie Friedman and Craig Taubman. “To have had no idea that that world of Jewish music existed, and then to be dropped into it without having heard it growing up, well — you hear it differently.”
He was more than open to the experience.
“It was like a light going on. It changed me. It made me examine Jewish music,” he told NJJN in an April 12 phone interview from his Brooklyn apartment. “It was like someone opened the curtains and windows, and I dove in.”
At 33, Nelson has already had more musical experience and success than most musicians find in a lifetime. He has taught jazz at a major university, served as a conductor, played in a popular band, and was tapped last year as one of the composers of the planned Broadway musical version of the hit film Sleepless in Seattle.
But he has indeed dived deep into Jewish music, as front man for the Josh Nelson Project, his Jewish rock band, and as an educator who promotes ways to engage unaffiliated Jews. (A passion he shares, by the way, with Joshua Nelson, the African-American Jewish performer and self-described “Prince of Kosher Gospel.”)
Josh Nelson has served as music director for the Union for Reform Judaism biennial convention, on the faculty of the Hava Nashira Music Institute, and as artist-in-residence for the JCC Maccabi Artsfest.
On April 29-30, he will be artist-in-residence at Temple Shalom in Aberdeen, singing and leading workshops and performing with the Josh Nelson Project.
‘Music to inspire’
From a very early age, Nelson knew music would be his life. He was composing on the piano by the time he was two or three, he said. Today, in addition to the double bass, he plays piano, guitar, percussion, and organ. Playing all these instruments affects how he composes for them; he tries, he said, to keep all of his compositions fresh. “I don’t want to use the same bag of tricks all of the time.”
His influences straddle genres from classical music to jazz to classic rock and include the Beatles, Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel, and Franz Schubert. His all-time favorite composition? Brahms’ Requiem.
A New Bedford, Mass., native, he grew up in the Conservative movement and earned undergraduate and master’s degrees at Boston University, where he also went through the PhD program. He is writing his dissertation on “vocalese,” a jazz style popular in the 1950s. Nelson moved to the New York area four years ago, retiring at that time from teaching jazz at BU. He lives in Park Slope with his wife, Debbie Farrell Nelson, and their two children, two-year-old Zachary and 10-month-old Judah.
Although he achieved some success in the world of popular music, he said, “it was a tough place to be. I was unfulfilled by it.”
So he created the Josh Nelson Project to “use music to inspire Jewish people,” he said. His vision is flexible, giving him a variety of tools for different audiences. “I can do a worship service for a large crowd, a worship service that is intimate, or a concert for a small crowd of just seven or eight,” he said.
He will soon launch an alternate Friday night experience in Brooklyn targeting unaffiliated Jews in their 20s and 30s. His peers in the Jewish music world include people like Rick Recht and Sheldon Low, but he sees each of them as very different musically, although they all experiment with contemporary Jewish music and have the same goal of reaching Jewish audiences through music.
In 2009, the Josh Nelson Project’s first CD, Lift, was released to critical success — and he’s been flying ever since.
“It’s been a phenomenal experience,” he said. “I was nervous in the beginning because the particular work I was doing is a stretch for the Jewish community I was part of. We’ve been blessed and the fact that it’s been incredibly well received has inspired me to keep writing.”