Oliver Nelson: a jazz midwife
Last week I ruminated here about the great saxophone divide as embodied by Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. After I'd run through all my recordings of those two tenor titans, I began to see more clearly the point I was trying to make. But, try as I might, I wasn't sure where to go from there, because it was my intention to follow up those remarks about style with a little map for listeners about the importance of the generic saxophone to the history of jazz.

I was trying too hard, and my focus was too narrow, as it turned out.

My deadline for SkyJazz drew ever nearer and late evenings at work intruded on my time of quiet and thought, so I decided to let the question lie for a few days and write about something else. As is my habit, I turned to my music library and came up with Oliver Nelson's "Blues And The Abstract Truth" [MCA, 1961]. About halfway through the recording, I realized that Nelson, a multi-instrumentalist and very talented composer and arranger, represented some kind of mediator where the "next big thing" in jazz was concerned.

And that is no small thing.

Consider the state of jazz when this benchmark album emerged. Broadly speaking, there were three camps of listeners at the time:

Miles Davis' monumental "Kind Of Blue" already had brought a new way of thinking about scales, and even the very form of the blues had been challenged and turned into a vehicle of ever greater possibility. That was one natural movement all its own and it launched endless experimentations by the likes of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles and their legion of musical progeny.

At about the same time, Ornette Coleman had made the New York scene and, along with such figures as Eric Dolphy and Booker Little, further wrenched form from the seeming chaos of the "free jazz." This gave pause to the more traditional listeners who, although they may have come to terms with the freedom of be-bop, found it difficult to assimilate the keyboard assaults of Cecil Taylor, the random terror from the tenor of Archie Shepp or the apparent in-joke of Don Cherry's pocket trumpet.

Finally, the hard-core traditionalists depended upon the tight orchestrations of the Ellington and Basie orchestras or the slipstream abandon of New Orleans jazz.

Enter Oliver Nelson.

Nelson had paid his dues on the road as a saxophonist and flautist with Louis Bellson, Louis Jordan, Erskine Hawkins and Wild Bill Davis, building a solid reputation as an arranger. This experience served him well, for he had the hard-won quality of being comfortable with any of the main camps of listeners in the early 1960s.

Surprisingly, there persists a notion of Nelson as an avant garde musician, to the exclusion of his tamer instincts, which were tasty and, 98 percent of the time, on the money, with a morsel for whoever cared to listen. His arranging and composing experience won him a fruitful career as the composer of myriad television themes and soundtracks, perhaps the most famous of these being the theme from the CBS-TV series, "Mr. Broadway."

Before he died in 1975, he kept busy writing commissioned works, classical pieces, studio and TV work, arranging for a wide variety of respected artists -- including Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery -- and emulating the elegance of Billy Strayhorn, only doing it in his own era.

It was Nelson who served as midwife to the blend of big band arrangements with more experimental arrangements -- a la Charles Mingus and Gil Evans -- and, because of his ubiquitous byline on television credits during the '60s, he found a blend of the traditional with the "shape of jazz to come," in Ornette Coleman's phrase, that, if it did not always please, did not drive potential listeners away.

With a claim staked in the music of his lifetime (1932-1975) in all its permutations, Nelson did something very few could have done: he brought to the bandstand a big bite for everyone.

And, as I mentioned above, that is no small thing, for "Blues And The Abstract Truth" is right up there with "Kind Of Blue" among the top 20 most influential jazz albums of all time. Check it out.