Jun 4, 2012
Oliver Nelson needs to be regarded by music listeners as one of the most significant jazz voices of his generation, and an important big band player, composer and arranger. Had he not died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 43, he would be celebrating his 80th birthday today.
He began playing with likes of Louis Jordan, “Wild Bill” Davis or Louie Bellson , then served as the house arranger for the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. In 1961 he released one of my favorite albums, The Blues and the Abstract Truth, on Impulse records, featuring an all-star septet that included Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, Roy Haynes, Paul Chambers and Freddie Hubbard. A heady mixture of blues structures with cool jazz and modal voicings, the album allows a great exploration of the many different ways musicians can play the blues. Whether the songs were 12 bar (“Yearnin’”) , 16 bar (“Stolen Moments”), or 32 bar blues (“Cascades”) the results are fresh and still show me new and different things every time I listen.
With the success of that deservedly acclaimed album, Nelson’s career as a composer blossomed, and he was subsequently the leader on a number of memorable big-band recordings, including “Afro-American” (Prestige) and “Full Nelson” (Verve). He also became an in-demand studio arranger, collaborating with Cannonball Adderley, Johnny Hodges, Stanley Turrentine, and others. He worked five sessions with organist Jimmy Smith, including the legendary Walk on the Wild Side.