The Joup Friday Album: Oliver Nelson – The Blues and the Abstract Truth

Oliver nelsonAround the time of the late Aughts, the idea of “authenticity” had permeated indie rock so thoroughly that individual band members’ biographies and “previously in” credits nearly eclipsed whatever new project they happened to be involved in. It seemed as though every new release came with a sticker that read, “Featuring former members of such-and-such.” No one seemed interested in moving forward so much as holding on to the last remnants of a perceived heyday that realistically never existed. Indie rock was not a commercial, mainstream movement in popular music, despite the importance it had in the minds and lives of Gen Xers.

In may ways, indie rock was Gen X’s version of jazz. Jazzers’ credits are hugely important, obscure albums are sought after, and what constitutes “authenticity” is relatively controversial. If a player comes from an educated, academic background, his “chops” aren’t always as highly regarded as one who cut his teeth on the streets and in the clubs. It’s an issue that surfaces time and again in biographies, interviews and reviews, despite the fact that jazz as a whole now occurs more frequently in academic settings and chi-chi venues than it does in a rat-infested bar down on the corner of Skid Row.

Oliver Nelson, whose The Blues and the Abstract Truth is regarded as one of the most influential albums of the modern jazz era, grew up in Missouri, the son of musical parents. He played regionally in the early 1950s with Lee Jordan before a stint in the Marines took him to Japan, where he saw the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and heard works by Maurice Ravel and Paul Hindemith. When he returned to the States, he pursued the idea of becoming a composer, attending Washington and Lincoln universities, graduating in 1958 with a Master’s degree. He eventually, like so many other jazz musicians of that time, made his way to New York, although Nelson, rather than solely playing clubs, became the house composer at the Apollo.

In 1961, Nelson, along with Eric Dolphy on sax and flute, George Barrow on baritone sax, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, drummer Roy Haynes, pianist Bill Evans and bassist Paul Chambers, recorded The Blues and The Abstract Truth for the Impulse! label (Nelson’s prior recordings had been for the Prestige label). Best known for “Stolen Moments,” the album take the concept of the blues and plays with the concepts of timing and phrasing. From the beginning of this album, listeners hear a much different interpretation of “the blues,” which tends to be thought of, at least in most mainstream portrayals, as guitar-based I-IV-V structures, with a mediocre vocalist and a tight bass-drums rhythm section. But on Nelson’s album, the blues is a thought, more of a concept rather than a knee-jerk, visceral musical purging of someone’s troubles. It’s not about raw emotion so much as it is a calculated exploration of a genre.

And this is where it gets tricky, because this album is, at least in my mind, the other half of a coin whose Side A is Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue.

Davis, of course, had a similar background to Nelson. Both were from the Missouri area and played in St. Louis. Unlike Nelson, however, Davis shunned traditional higher education, dropping out of Juilliard, to play in the clubs and hone his craft by playing with other greats, and pioneered his way to a place in history through sheer force of will. Nelson’s work is much more low-key and commercial — Nelson ended his career as a Hollywood composer, scoring such films as Death of a Gunfighter and serving as arranger on Last Tango in Paris. Whose credits are more “authentic?” Whose experiences are more “true?” Taken together, both of these albums explore the same types of themes. Which is better? To ask that question is, indeed, proof that there are dumb questions.

Nelson’s album begins with the famous “Stolen Moments,” a jazz standard that sets the tone for the album. Played in a 16-bar format (the “abstract” in the equation), it nonetheless has a typical 12-bar solo section (the “blues” in the equation). This is a cerebral blues, cool yet sophisticated, and shows the direct influence of Davis (Kind of Blue was released two years prior). From there, the album speeds up into “Hoe-Down,” a 40-bar romp that pre-dates the orchestral scores for the classic spy and caper movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s, while still giving a nod to the classic big band sound. “Cascades” and “Yearnin’” are classic, with Hubbard’s trumpet blazing and Evans piano dancing lightly in response. Through it all, Haynes is a solid anchor.

The Blues and The Abstract Truth is an album made for listening to, over and over. In the 50+ years it’s been available, it has never grown old or stale. It’s roughly 36 minutes of pure craft and musicianship, and though Nelson is the leader and composer, it was not about his credits, or what each individual player did on the record. It is about what they created together, and the work stands on its own as a “record” rather a collection of individuals with impressive CVs.

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Sara Farr

Sara Farr

Sara Farr is currently an adjunct marketing instructor at the School of Advertising Art. Previously, she worked as a graphic designer at Variety for six years, and spent 10 years before that as a music writer for various Midwestern and Los Angeles-based newspapers and magazines. Her work appears in “The Little Black Book, Music: Over a Century of the Greatest Artists, Albums, Songs, Performances and Events That Rocked the Music World.”

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