Oliver Nelson

Impressions of Phaedra / c. 1962 / United Artists

Moody and long-forgotten, like the film it was inspired by, Phaedra interchanges film-like cues with some torrid jazz content (mostly courtesy of Phil Woods). Makes an interesting case for "Greek Jazz."

Full Nelson / Nov. 19, 1962 - March 28, 1963 / Verve

Great themes, outstanding players and Nelson at his typical best, with bright arrangements and sprite alto work.

Oliver Nelson: Verve Jazz Masters 48 / Nov. 19, 1962 - Nov. 14, 1967 / Verve

Unfortunately, Verve continues to issue many compilation CDs instead of bringing back the original records. But this is one of the best. The material comes from Nelson’s long-gone Verve material. This is an excellent sampler showcasing a talented arranger and player doing what he does best with some of the best jazz players in New York during the 1960s. Includes excellent Nelson moments from from Full Nelson (1962-62) and Jazzhattan Suite (1967).

Fantabulous / March 17, 1964 / Argo

Everything about this record falls perfectly into place for Oliver Nelson. His originals (7 of the 9 tunes including "Three Plus One," "Teenie’s Blues" and the familiar "Hobo Flats") display a fun-loving vitality. Arrangements are witty and light. The playing -- by Nelson on tenor, Phil Woods on alto/clarinet and Patti Bown on piano – is rousing and jubilant. "Fantabulous" is highly recommended and worth reissuing on CD.

Oliver Nelson Plays Michelle / April 13 and 14, 1966 / Impulse

Short (often corny) tunes and brief, likable solos. Nelson features one of his first uses of guitar here (Barry Galbraith and, more prominently, Billy Butler). Nelson’s originals, "Jazz Bug" and "Do You See What I See?" are worth a listen.

Happenings / October 19-21, 1966 / Impulse

A very successful collaboration featuring Hank Jones, Happenings works surprisingly well. Unfortunately Jones is forced to play electronic harpsichord throughout half the record. But Nelson showcases even this nicely with an eclectic mix of material and light-hearted arrangements. Clark Terry has several excellent features here too.

The Kennedy Dream / February 16, 1967 / Impulse

Ever passionate about politics, Oliver Nelson here launches eight heartfelt orchestral jazz compositions from memorable sections of John Kennedy’s speeches about equality and positive change. Nelson is occasionally heard singing on soprano and tenor. But one’s attention is inevitably drawn to Nelson’s compositional ability, particularly with strings. "The Rights of All," "Let the Word Go Forth" and "The Artists’ Rightful Place" are stand-out pieces that also allow an opportunity to savor some of the fine talent: Phil Woods, Hank Jones, George Duvivier and Grady Tate. Deserves to be issued on CD.

Live From Los Angeles / June 2-4, 1967 / Impulse

Oliver Nelson’s live recordings don’t seem as sharp as his studio stuff. Good playing, though, from a good group of West Coasters, but nothing exciting happens.

Jazzhattan Suite / Nov. 13-14, 1967 / Verve

An outstanding orchestral jazz portrait of New York City, aptly and intuitively composed and arranged by Oliver Nelson (who was by this time a Los Angeles resident). Often grandly evocative of an exciting city and it’s variety of rhythms, Jazzhattan Suite appeared on Verve in 1967 under the auspices of the "Jazz Interactions Orchestra." An a-list potpourri of jazz stars is on hand performing some of Nelson’s strongest work ("Complex City, "The East Side/The West Side" and "A Typical Day in New York") plus the familiar "125th and Seventh Ave" and "One for Duke". Most tracks are included on the CD, Oliver Nelson -- Verve Jazz Masters.

Soulful Brass / March 15 and 18, 1968 / Impulse

With Steve Allen. Not one of Nelson’s most memorable: watered-down arrangements and pop tunes framing Allen’s electronic harpsichord noodling. Nelson and Allen were paired again in 1969 on Flying Dutchman for Soulful Brass #2.

Black Brown and Beautiful / 1969 / Flying Dutchman

A stirring tribute to Martin Luther King that is as searching and angry as it is contemplative and compassionate. Nelson mixes dissonant orchestral moments that nearly lapse into free zones with lovely, more familiar territory which celebrate a joy of love and life. Highly recommended but (as of yet) unissued on CD and very hard to find.

Black Brown and Beautiful / March 16-19, 1970 / RCA Bluebird

A compilation CD featuring several Oliver Nelson performances and much of Johnny Hodge’s last album, 3 Shades of Blue (arranged by Oliver Nelson). Only the Hodges material is of interest. But it is glorious music; with Nelson scoring several outstanding Ellington themes and, unfortunately, some silly Leon Thomas material for Hodge’s well-known and ever-emotional alto. Hodges’ last recording.

Berlin Dialogue For Orchestra / November 5, 1970 / Flying Dutchman

Mixing Nelson’s easily recognizable style with avant-garde flourishes and lyrical passages, this tribute to the city of Berlin is fascinating to hear, even on repeated listens. Outstanding players (featuring Carmell Jones, Slide Hampton and Leo Wright) and flawless performances bring Nelson’s two long-form jazz compositions to life.

Swiss Suite / June 18, 1971 / Flying Dutchman

The 26-minute title suite is an interesting barn burner featuring Gato Barbieri’s tenor and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson’s alto. The rest of this 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival performance features Nelson’s disorganized and rather uninteresting orchestra on three shorter, more familiar themes ("Stolen Moments," "Black, Brown & Beautiful" and "Blues & The Abstract Truth").

Oliver Edward Nelson With Oily Rags / April 1974 / Flying Dutchman

Producer Bob Thiele made something of a career out of unusual musical pairings: Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, Johnny Hodges and Lawrence Welk, Chico Hamilton and Larry Coryell, Steve Allen and Gabor Szabo, Theresa Brewer and everyone. Oliver Nelson was on the receiving end of the Thiele matchmaking magic several times himself, paired as he was with Hank Jones (very successfully), Pee Wee Russell (winningly), Steve Allen (interestingly) and with these guys, Oily Rags. Nominally a name given to two Brits, Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock, it's hard to make anything of this record - or explain Nelson's presence here in any rational way other than as a favor to producer and long-time Nelson advocate, Bob Thiele, who is said to have discovered Oily Rags and failed to groom them for anything better than this. With a name like Oily Rags, what did anyone expect? Even with the rag revival, which this really doesn't touch, in full swing during 1974? Oliver Nelson is named (in full) and pictured on the album's cover and he's featured on every track, but he barely registers. Indeed, his playing is the best reason to hear this record. But none of the songs here, including a Bob Thiele classic ("Mailman Bring Me No More Blues"), are by Nelson (probably none of the arrangements, such as they are, either) and none have any of the real magic he can bring to any recording so prominently boasting his participation.

Skull Session / January 7-10, 1975 / Flying Dutchman

Hardly up to snuff for the talented yet overworked Nelson, who was far too busy at the time giving Steve Austin a new soundtrack each and every week. The album is something of a mixed bag, with some good funk ("Skull Session"), some truly awful funk ("Dumpy Mama"), beautiful new ballads ("Baja Bossa", "In A Japanese Garden" and "Flight For Freedom") and rather stiff ambles down memory lane ("125th St. And 7th Ave." and "One For Duke"). Like most Bob Thiele productions during this time, the whole thing just never gels or holds together as a cohesive listen. It's a rollercoaster with twists and turns that don't sound quite right from one point to the next. There are a lot of talented LA studio musicians on hand here, but none of the great musical statements that were heard in the old days, even from Oliver Nelson, who in a pleasant turn, is heard on alto sax on all tracks. Surely more material was recorded during these sessions, some of which showed up on the posthumous sampler, A Dream Deferred. But this set probably combines the best of what was recorded. Worth it for "Skull Session", "Baja Bossa" (which is derived from a Steve Austin episode) and the seemingly too-short "In A Japanese Garden". 

Stolen Moments / March 6, 1975 / Inner City

A beautiful swan song from the immensely talented Oliver Nelson, featuring his terrific alto. Nelson's last known studio recording finds him revisiting four of his more important jazz compositions, including the exquisite "Three Seconds" and, of course, the timeless title cut, and chestnuts by Monk, Rollins and Hefti that underscore what a marvelous and most individual explorer he was a jazz musician (something which had not been heard by many in quite some time at this point). No one in America was producing jazz like this in the mid Seventies, and it took the Japanese to care enough about Nelson the player and Nelson the composer - even Nelson the producer - to produce something which still stands among the very best jazz records made during the 1970s. Features an excellent West Coast small group with Bobby Bryant, Jerome Richardson, Buddy Collette, Bobby Bryant Jr., Jack Nimitz, Mike Wofford, Chuck Domanico and Shelly Manne (d).

A Dream Deferred / 1969 - January 1975 / Flying Dutchman

Double-album compilation mixing okay material from Nelson’s Flying Dutchman records with his arrangements made for Count Basie, Johnny Hodges and Louis Armstrong. Several previously unreleased and rather unremarkable tracks recorded by Nelson in 1975 appear here, making this something of a collectable. But those who own Black Brown And Beautiful, Afrique or 3 Shades Of Blue probably won't bother. For completists only.

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

This amazing and thoroughly essential six-disc set covers what amounts to Oliver Nelson’s most significant work outside of anything from The Blues And The Abstract Truth (of course), Afro-American Sketches and, the lamentably forgotten Black, Brown And Beautiful (which, though owned by rival Sony/BMG, would have made a tremendously significant inclusion on this set, if it could have been arranged).

What’s on CD for the first time ever: The entire contents of Nelson’s Full Nelson (Verve – 1963), Fantabulous (Argo – 1964), the awe-inspiring The Kennedy Dream (Impulse – 1967), Jazzhattan Suite (Verve – 1967), the entirety of Nelson’s contributions to Leonard Feather’s Encylopedia of Jazz In The Sixties (Verve – 1966) and The Sound Of Feeling (Verve – 1966), and Jimmy Smith’s Hobo Flats (Verve – 1963, if you don’t count a questionably legitimate Russian CD release that’s incredibly difficult to obtain).

What else you get: The full contents of Nelson and Jimmy Smith’s Peter And The Wolf (Verve – 1966), Nelson and Pee Wee Russell’s The Spirit Of ’67 (Impulse – 1967), the big band contents of Nelson’s Sound Pieces (Impulse – 1966) and Nelson’s collaborations with Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, The Dynamic Duo and Further Adventures (both Verve – 1966), the full contents of Nelson’s contributions to Jimmy Smith’s Bashin’ (Impulse – 1962), the available big band bits of Jimmy Smith’s Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (Verve -1964), Ray Brown & Milt Jackson (Verve – 1965) and Shirley Scott’s Roll ‘Em (Impulse – 1966),

What’s not here: Mosaic doesn’t mess around with their titles. That’s why they’re so long. It’s almost a way of saying what they’re not, rather than what they are. So you won’t hear Nelson’s best known album, the aforementioned “small group” classic, The Blues And The Abstract Truth (Impulse – 1961), featuring his best-known composition “Stolen Moments.” There’s also none of Nelson’s (mostly journeyman) work for the Prestige label (1959-61), the obscure United Artists sessions from 1962 (the odd but entrancing Impressions Of Phaedra or the incredibly compatible and brilliant A Taste Of Honey), More Blues And The Abstract Truth (Impulse – 1964), Nelson’s beautiful big band work on Billy Taylor’s two 1964 Capitol albums (never on CD), or Nelson’s “live” big band recording Live From Los Angeles (Impulse – 1967). And while others may question my seriousness, it’s a shame that Nelson’s campy tête-à-tête with Steve Allen, Soulful Brass (Impulse – 1968, another cringe-inducing Bob Thiele concept), couldn’t be included here. It really fits.

What’s missing: Producer Michael Cuscuna goes to great lengths to explain how he has limited the scope of this set to big band studio sessions on these three labels. But there are definitely some pieces missing here that accurately fit the set’s stated concept. Those worth including that are not heard here are Nelson’s corny pop trip, Oliver Nelson Plays Michelle (Impulse – 1966, really notable only for “Jazz Bug”), the brilliant and underrated collaboration with Hank Jones, Happenings (Impulse – 1966) and more than a few Nelson-helmed works by Shirley Scott (the big band sides of For Members Only (Impulse – 1963) and the wondrous Great Scott! (Impulse – 1963)) and Jimmy Smith (the criminally neglected Monster (Verve – 1965), the big band sides of Got My Mojo Workin’ (Verve – 1965), odds and ends from Hoochie Coochie Man (Verve – 1966), the lush Livin' It Up (Verve – 1968, probably not here because strings were added, but it’s hardly a ‘with strings’ affair) and two Nelson/Smith collaborations issued on 45 only). Also worth considering are Nelson’s recordings with vocalists Irene Reid (Room For One More - Verve, 1965) and Jean DuShon (Feeling Good, Cadet – 1965) and trumpeter Don Goldie's quite good but little known Trumpet Exodus (Verve – 1962, probably out of the running because it would be impossible to determine which two songs were arranged by Al Cohn). I can go either way on Nelson’s few arrangements for Jack Teagarden, Kai Winding and Cal Tjader on the Verve label during this period, as they kind of skirt one’s definition of “big band”. But the other stuff clearly seems to be missing in my estimation.

Still, it's an excellent set celebrating the identifiable signature of Oliver Nelson's complex, but never less than swinging, charts. Mosaic's presentation, production and research are, again, impeccable and musician Kenny Berger's notes are knowledgeable and musicianly. An absolute must for those who yearn for the very best in orchestral jazz, a sound that, sadly, disappeared long ago.