Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

July/August 2016: Greg Lowe

Oliver Nelson (1932–75): Blues and the Abstract Truth

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Oliver Nelson was a versatile arranger, composer, and saxophonist who is best known for composing the classic “Stolen Moments.” He was a hobby model railroader who made the best of many of the opportunities presented to him. In 1961, he played with Louis Jordan’s big band, followed by a stint in the Navy and four years studying music at university. He apprenticed in the bands of Erskine Hawkins, Louis Bellson, and later Quincy Jones.

The success of his landmark album Blues and the Abstract Truth [Impulse #IMPD154] gave him recognition, respect, and most importantly more work. It led to sessions with Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, Buddy Rich, Nancy Wilson, and Stanley Turrentine. Outside of jazz it provided an opportunity to record with James Brown and the Temptations. His success attracted Hollywood’s attention, and in 1967 he moved to Los Angeles. A Universal Studios executive had heard his work on a Jimmy Smith record and hired him.

In Los Angeles, Nelson wrote the music for many television shows, including Columbo with Peter Falk, Ironside starring Raymond Burr, and Banacek with George Peppard, and his best best-known work, the theme for the Six Million Dollar Man with Lee Majors. In film, Nelson was equally as versatile and scored the Last Tango in Paris featuring the Argentinian sax player Gato Barbieri, and for the movie Alfie, he wrote lively arrangements as a musical backdrop for Sonny Rollins. Nelson died of a heart attack in 1975. He was forty-three.

Nelson’s career-defining moment came in 1961 when record executive Creed Taylor signed him to a one-album deal for Blues and the Abstract Truth. The clever title for the release came from Taylor, who produced the session. Six songs were recorded in one day, on February 23, 1961, at Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio. Nelson takes the blues and largely disregards its twelve-bar form, exploring the music in the post-bop style pioneered by Wayne Shorter and developed by Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

The lead track, “Stolen Moments,” which Nelson wrote in 1960, is one of the most important jazz songs ever. Nelson made the best use of the musical talents booked to play on the date with an emotional trumpet solo by Freddie Hubbard, followed by Eric Dolphy on flute, then Nelson on sax, and lastly Bill Evans on piano. The track consists of three melodic ideas that through magic become one. It is a musical masterpiece.

The next best known, and perhaps the most unusual composition on the disc, is the rousing “Hoe-Down.” Nelson borrows heavily from American composer Aaron Copland on this. Once again, Hubbard is on trumpet, but Dolphy moves to sax, and Roy Haynes is on drums.

The bopish “Cascades” started as a saxophone exercise Nelson composed in college. It is a beautiful vehicle for Nelson, Hubbard, and Evans to solo. Evans, in particular, makes a strong statement as his solo builds in intensity. “Teenie’s Blues” is a blues dedicated to Nelson’s young sister and features Dolphy and Nelson playing the melodic line on alto saxophones.

Blues and the Abstract Truth is a giant recording in the history of jazz. ©2006 Ross Porter

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