On NEQ’s new record Nevertheless, this trio of A-list mid-Hudson Valley players explores the dimensions, the challenges, and the unique expressive opportunities of a highly marginalized genre: instrumental rock and fusion. In the process, they grapple with some fundamental questions about the place of instrumental music in today’s musical marketplace and in the hearts and minds of listeners.
Can music without moving mouths really connect with popular audiences and popular taste, offering something like the emotional identification, the personality, and the catharsis of song? Or is instrumental rock music — as beautiful and exhilarating as it can often be — generally consigned to a small cognoscenti audience of players, intellectuals, and the ogling spectators of shred?
It’s sad to say that the marketplace itself ruled on this matter long ago. Instrumental music is, with the rarest of exceptions, commercial poison, and those who would commit themselves to its disciplines had better plan to make most of their living as teachers and music-store clinicians.
Even jazz — America’s great instrumental music — hasn’t been true chart-topping pop since the swing era, after which bebop chased away most of its casual audience in much the same way that Arnold Schoenberg and other modernist composers sent classical fans scurrying for the comforts of the past. Fittingly, the economy of jazz has more and more come to resemble that of classical music — an economy of grants, fellowships, residencies, tenure-track positions, and prestigious French awards.
While they bristle at the very sound of the word “shredder,” Todd Nelson (guitar), Kyle Esposito (bass), and Manuel Quintana (drums) absolutely flex their formidable skills as players all over this record. They’re all in-demand local sidemen who have registered nationally as touring and studio players as well. This deeply collaborative project is a labor of love.
They shine individually and collectively. But what is so giddily refreshing about Nevertheless is how they stretch themselves as producers, sound designers, and arrangers — how seriously they take the challenge of telling stories and conjuring moods, evoking places and eras, and connecting to the imaginations and emotions of listeners, all while honoring the well-honed improvisational power trio at the heart of the enterprise
It is quite a balancing act. On eleven witty, stylish, and referentially playful compositions plus one remix, NEQ make the case that theirs is music for the people. While the song forms are indeed long and the solos are indeed many, NEQ treat every song as its own world, full of surprise, thematic development, immersive texture, and plenty of elegant and adventurous melody courtesy of principal writer Nelson. I would argue that anyone who has ever enjoyed a Morricone soundtrack, a surf record, or the genius of Jobim or Piazzolla should be able to find some delights here.
Starting with the winking, stylized bossa rock of track one, “Dune Buggy,” NEQ treat every song as a sui-generis studio construction. With a wheezy electric organ, an utterly disarming timbale solo out of nowhere, and an oblique, swanky jet-set pop melody over super-hip chord changes, “Dune Buggy” establishes the rules that will prevail the rest of the way. This buggy will go anywhere it wants. Stay alert.
Dune Buggy is followed by “Afternoon Map,” an unfussy and absolutely gorgeous piece of odd-meter post-rock that isn’t much bothered with cheeky stylistic references. It’s all about live ensemble chemistry and Nelson’s expansive harmonic imagination.
So it goes across the record. For every stylized noir Latin tune, stumble blues, or cinematic mood piece like the stunning ballad “Albatross,” there’s a straight up, live-feeling workout like “Camoplaid” or a wicked groove tune like “Threshold,” playing to the band’s core strength.
That the album should groove hard will surprise no one who has heard this group live in the local venues over the years. The surprise may come in how well-considered and developed this record is on the compositional and arrangement level, how much a piece of studio art it is.
“It was a conscious evolution in Todd’s writing that lent itself to a more composed approach to the arranging during the recording of the songs,” says Esposito. “Though I don’t recall ever talking about it, We all were ready to break out of the ‘head — solos — head, gotta be able to play it as a trio’ tyranny that ran through our choices previously, though the material had always been eclectic and hard to pin down stylistically.”
Adds Quintana, “We wanted all the recordings to be a representation of the song in its fullest form. We didn’t want the song to be restricted or have any limitations in place, especially in the creative process. Limitations are good, too, but I personally prefer to give the song what it wants as much as possible even if it seems crazy. Like, if the song is crying out for a string section then we will get a string section (or brilliant keyboardist), regardless of how we will perform this live or whether it goes with vibe of the band or the rest of the songs. The goal was always the song. We didn’t have any restricting concepts in mind when we started this.”
“By 2018, the band for me had reached a point at which its approach had to change,” explains Nelson, “We tried expanding the lineup for the last year of that period. But the new material we were doing was misguided on my part.
“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. There’s some prog rock elements, but it’s really funky, too. The studio flourishes are mostly Manuel’s. I tried to bring a variety of guitar sounds, and he and Kyle were enthusiastic about that.”
“As for compositional diversity,” Nelson continues, “it felt pretty normal to do it that way. There wasn’t any angst about it that I remember. Once we agreed on that approach, we were freer to absorb everything. If all you write is songs for people to sing, then every melody has to be singable. If that’s not a consideration, then many more types of melodies are possible.”
In order to represent the material live, NEQ has added several players, including ubiquitous keyboard whiz Ross Rice, who plays several memorable parts on Nevertheless, and the producer and veteran guitarist Danny Blume.
“It’s been really great having Danny and Ross for the live shows,” says Nelson. “They have the technique to do required parts and the imagination to solo and put their own stamp on things.”
NEQ’s Nevertheless is available at all online outlets, and the band is currently gearing up for some spring dates.