Chilling out with jazz maestro Oliver Nelson

Luis Santos April 9, 2020
Chilling out with jazz maestro Oliver Nelson

It’s likely you’ve been scratching your head for new ideas lately.

With mobility restricted until further notice, after your allotted one-hour walk perhaps baking isn’t your forte and stress levels are rising instead?

Fear not, because I have a way for you to chill out at home – listen to vastly under-rated soloist and jazz composer Oliver Nelson.

‘One of the most mature and compelling writers to emerge during the early 1960s’

British-born American jazz critic Leonard Feather

Widely known composer, conductor and arranger Oliver Edward Nelson (4 June 1932 to 28 October 1975) was an American jazz saxophonist and clarinetist and regarded one of the most significant soloists of his era.

Playing with some of the greats such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Nelson also wrote scores for several films, including Death Of A Gunfighter (1969) and Skullduggery (1970), and composed music for a number of television programmes.

Born in St Louis, Missouri, Nelson showed prodigious talent from an early age, becoming a professional musician before he finished grade school.

He started playing piano aged five and by the time he hit ten had mastered the saxophone.

Nelson’s most serious compositions include a woodwind quintet in 1960, a song cycle for contralto and piano in 1961, Dirge For Chamber Orchestra in 1962 and Soundpiece For String Quartet And Contralto in 1963.

British-born American jazz critic Leonard Feather said at the time: “Though not strictly classifiable as an avant-gardist, Nelson was one of the most mature and compelling writers to emerge during the early 1960s.”

‘Before long everything got turned around and I began a period of self-searching’

Oliver Nelson

Nelson arrived in New York City in 1959 during a time and place that produced classic modern jazz albums such as Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis and The Shape Of Jazz To Come by Ornette Coleman, who also debuted in the city that year.

However, a wave of change was hitting jazz composition and improvisation in the late 1950s.

The 27-year-old Nelson later recalled: “As a player, I became aware of some things I knew existed but was afraid to see them as they really were. I believed I had my own musical identity but before long everything got turned around and I began a period of self-searching.”

Tectonic shifts in the art of jazz

Signing with Prestige Records, as described on The Music Aficionado, Nelson went on to make a number of albums with the label in 1959 and 1960 until he was spotted by Creed Taylor, the man running Impulse Records. The label had found great success with its first four releases, signing the likes of JJ Johnson, Kai Winding, Ray Charles and Gil Evans. Expectations were high for the next release.

History in the making

Taylor’s description of Nelson was: “He was very special – melodic. He understood voicing like nobody else. There was something about him at that point. He could blend in with a section but at the same time he had a sound that was so strident. When he played a solo he was unmistakably Oliver Nelson.” 

However, there was more to it than that and what Taylor really got was much more than a fine tenor player – Nelson excelled on composition and arrangement on his debut album for Impulse.

The Blues And The Abstract Truth became one of the most memorable jazz albums of the early 1960s, with a star line-up combining to produce some of the best jazz arrangements on record.
Have something to tell us about this article?
Let us know
Luis has been collaborating as a content writer since 2017 with main focus on Politics and Economy, and is a self published fiction writer. A Sporting Lisbon fan, Old Trafford has played an important place in his heart over the years, as he believes a Man United line-up starring Giggs and Figo is still possible.