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Oliver Nelson: Screamin' The Blues

Chris May By

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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 Holiday vehicle, Lady Sings The Blues.

Nelson was playing with Quincy Jones' band round about the time Screamin' The Blues was made, and who knows, if he hadn't died at the tragically early age of 43, he might have made a career of at least mini-Q proportions.

Nelson's most feted own album is The Blues And The Abstract Truth (Impulse!, 1961), made a year or so after Screamin' The Blues, which is almost its equal. As the titles suggest, both discs are blues-based. Both are anchored by the impeccable Roy Haynes on drums, and both include Eric Dolphy on alto saxophone and, on this album, bass clarinet. The Impulse! set gains some of its edge with the substitutions of pianist Bill Evans for Richard Wyands and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard for Richard Williams. Not that either Wyands or Williams is a weak player. Each is an attacking hard bop cruiserweight, but neither has the special presence of Evans or Hubbard (on a good day).

Nelson knew how to get to the heart of someone else's work and make it soar heavenwards, but he wasn't a memorable composer himself. While all but one tune here is a Nelson original, each is too formulaic and codified to stick in mind for long. But what Nelson lacked in composing flair he made up for in performing passion and—crucially for this project—a kinship with the blues.

Dolphy and Nelson are a potent combination. Each player favours a heavily vocalised tone, and Dolphy's angular and quirky ellipsism contrasts vividly with Nelson's more straightforward, plain-speaking approach. The album closes with "Alto-itis," an up-tempo fury of serpentine bop, with the two men duelling riotously and distinctively on alto.

Nelson's rough-hewn tenor solos on the twelve-bar title track and gospel-infused "The Meetin'" grease the skillet, as does Dolphy's alto on the minor blues "March On, March On" and "Three Seconds." Wyands blows some mean hard bop on the first of these and a fine muted solo on the second.

Here in a punchy remaster by the original session engineer Rudy Van Gelder, Screamin' The Blues deserves wider currency.


Track Listing: Screamin' the Blues; March On, March On; The Drive; The Meetin'; Three Seconds; Alto-Itis.

Personnel: Oliver Nelson: alto and tenor saxophones; Eric Dolphy: alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute; Richard Williams: trumpet; Richard Wyands: piano; George Duvivier: bass; Roy Haynes: drums.

Title: Screamin' the Blues | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Prestige Records

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