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Oliver Nelson

Oliver Nelson needs to be reconsidered by music listeners for what he was - one of the most significant jazz voices of his generation, and an important big band composer and arranger of the 1960s. Perhaps the skill he mastered most keenly was his ability to turn listeners on. As difficult as his music might have been to play, and as hard as it is to analyze, it is extremely easy to listen to.

Born June 4, 1932 in St. Louis, Oliver Nelson came from a musical family: His brother played saxophone with Cootie Williams in the Forties, and his sister was a singer-pianist. Nelson himself began piano studies at age six and saxophone at eleven. In the late ‘40’s he played in various territory bands and then spent 1950-51 with Louis Jordan’s big band. After two years in a Marine Corps ensemble, he returned to St. Louis to study composition and theory at both Washington and Lincoln universities.

After graduation in 1958, Nelson moved to New York and played with Erskine Hawkins, Wild Bill Davis, and Louie Bellson. He also became the house arranger for the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Though he began recording as a leader in 1959, Nelson’s breakthrough came in 1961 with “The Blues and the Abstract Truth,” (Impulse) featuring an all- star septet of; Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, Roy Haynes, Paul Chambers and Freddie Hubbard. 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. In addition to dates he led under his own name, he wrote, scored and conducted under the names Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia of Jazz All Stars and the Jazz Impressions Orchestra; did a date for Shirley Scott and another for Ray Brown and Milt Jackson; five sessions with organist Jimmy Smith, including the legendary “Walk on the Wild Side," another headlined by Smith and Wes Montgomery; and the incomparable Pee Wee Russell. During the Sixties, Nelson became one of the most strongly identifiable writing voices in jazz. Since Nelson was schooled in both the American jazz and European music traditions, his arrangements can be intricate, but when it comes time for a solo, it's clear that Nelson (who was himself a brilliant soloist on tenor alto and soprano saxophone) has fashioned everything as the proper set up for the featured player.

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Radio & Podcasts

Sixteen Horns v. Six Strings

Read "Sixteen Horns v. Six Strings" reviewed by Patrick Burnette

Big bands tempt the ambitious jazzer with their expansive possibilities for arrangements, the variegated colors they offer, and their sheer power. But, boy, those budgets! These days you need a generous label or a grant or two to make things work. We take a look at a very seventies example of the genre and then a brand new effort by a young woman barely old enough to drive. A guitar trio and a guitar solo fill out the episode, and ...

Album Review

Various Artists: First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary

Read "First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary" reviewed by Chris May

The headline news on this lavishly packaged, four-CD collection of the work of the Impulse! label's founding producer, Creed Taylor, is that it includes three previously unreleased tracks by John Coltrane. These were recorded during rehearsals for what would become the saxophonist's Impulse! debut, Africa/Brass, in 1961. They have a combined playing time of less than eight minutes, but as newly discovered Coltrane recordings are reduced to a trickle with the passage of time, the arrival of any such material, ...

Album Review

Oliver Nelson: Oliver Nelson: The Argo, Verve and Impulse Big Band Studio Sessions

Read "Oliver Nelson: The Argo, Verve and Impulse Big Band Studio Sessions" reviewed by Andrew Velez

The work of Oliver Nelson (1932-1975), saxophonist, composer and arranger (including composing orchestral and chamber music in non-jazz idioms), is remembered in this typically classy Mosaic six-CD set of 1962-1967 sessions. In his liner notes Nelson scholar and saxophonist and composer/arranger Kenny Berger observes, “The recordings in this set were made from the mid to late period of the last golden age of the studio recording in New York. Nelson's experience as a jazz soloist himself made ...

Album Review

Oliver Nelson With Eric Dolphy: Screamin' the Blues

Read "Screamin' the Blues" reviewed by Samuel Chell

Screamin' the Blues is an apt description of the soloists' approach on this 1960 session, here reissued as an RVG remaster, the first of three matching leader Oliver Nelson with avant-gardist Eric Dolphy. Although not as well-known as Nelson's masterpiece, Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961), the date is characterized, above all, by “generosity" on the part of all three principals, including the underrated trumpeter Richard Williams.

Nelson's tenor solo on the title tune is the equivalent of an operatic ...

Album Review

Oliver Nelson: Screamin' The Blues

Read "Screamin' The Blues" reviewed by Chris May

A gutsy, down-home, blues-drenched saxophonist who could make flames burst out of the bell of his horn, Oliver Nelson is probably best remembered for his back-room chores on other musicians' records. He arranged Jimmy Smith's biggest chart hit, “Walk On The Wild Side," and an even bigger one for Louis Armstrong, “What A Wonderful World." He also arranged some enduring film scores, notably Sonny Rollins' music for Alfie, Gato Barbieri's music for Last Tango In Paris, and Diana Ross' Billie ...

Album Review

Oliver Nelson: Screamin' The Blues

Read "Screamin' The Blues" reviewed by Ronald S. Russ

There were many saxophonists on the scene in 1960 who would influence jazz for the next forty years. While saxophonist/composer/arranger Oliver Nelson might not be the best known of the musicians of that era, he blew alongside some of the greats. He is probably best known for his compositions and arrangements ("Stolen Moments," “Miss Fine" and “Hobo Flats" come to mind). Nelson was born in St. Louis, Missouri and played with big bands like the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra in the late ...

Album Review

Oliver Nelson: Straight Ahead

Read "Straight Ahead" reviewed by Keiran Smalley

Contrast is everything. Think of food for example: A big salty hunk of mature cheese is nicely offset by a couple of sweet grapes. Gastronomes would never dream of eating a rich foie-gras without the accompaniment of the honeyed sweetness of a glass of Sauternes.

The same is true with music; a whole album of fast-paced music quickly becomes draining. Likewise, an hour of chilled-out dub can send you to sleep. The saxophonist and composer Oliver Nelson ...

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Kestutis Stanciauskas
bass, electric
Ed Puddick
Tony SingingEagle
composer / conductor
Rob Ames
saxophone, soprano
Daev Keli



Recordings: As Leader | As Sideperson

First Impulse: The...

Verve/Hip-O Select


Musical Tribute to...

Impulse! Records


Oliver Nelson: The...

Mosaic Records


Screamin' the Blues

Prestige Records


Full Nelson

Verve Music Group




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