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Oliver Nelson + Eric Dolphy


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The blues were in Oliver Nelson's blood. Virtually everything he wrote and arranged had an indigo hue. But Nelson's original works weren't your average blues. They were blues cathedrals constructed with flying-buttress passages, gargoyle phrases and stained-glass voicings. When Nelson played the alto or tenor saxophone on these blues, there was a warm clarity to his tone and a sweetness to how he dragged notes.

Nelson recorded head-to-head albums with Eric Dolphy, a blues master of another stripe. Dolphy's blues tended to be more elongated with spirited hollow tones. Whether Dolphy played the alto saxophone, bass clarinet or flute, his expression was akin to a car with squealing tires on curves vs. Nelson's syrup pouring from a pitcher.

The two albums were Screamin' the Blues and Straight Ahead. The former was recorded in May 1960 while the latter was recorded in March 1961. The latter features Dolphy with a freer feel. Trumpeter Richard Williams joined on the former, and the rhythm section was the same on both—pianist Richard Wyands, bassist George Duvivier and drummer Roy Haynes. 

What's terrific about these albums is the contrast between Nelson's steady sound on his original blues and Dolphy's graffiti-like attack. You can hear this on Ralph's New Blues and Straight Ahead on the album Straight Ahead, and on The Drive and Alto-itis from Screamin' the Blues. Interestingly, between the two albums was the Nelson masterpiece, The Blues and the Abstract Truth, recorded in February 1961. Dolphy also played on that one, a septet date.

It should be noted that Wyands was exceptional on both Nelson-Dolphy albums, creating elegant tension on the keyboard and framing both reed players with superb chords. Williams on trumpet served as a shimmering punctuation mark. [Photo above of Richard Wyands]

Oliver Nelson died in 1975 and Eric Dolphy died in 1964.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find all four Oliver Nelson-Eric Dolphy albums on a two-CD release called Complete Recordings here. The set includes Screamin' the Blues, Eddie “Lockjaw" Davis's Train Whistle, Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth and Straight Ahead.

Or you can find these albums individually.

JazzWax clips: Here's The Drive from Screamin' the Blues...

And here's Straight Ahead from Straight Ahead...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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