Oliver Nelson (1932-1975) always gave the impression that he had enough talent for three musicians. As a tenor-saxophonist, altoist, arranger, composer, and bandleader, Nelson was near the top of his field.
Born in St. Louis, Nelson was playing professionally as a 15-year-old in 1947, working with the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra and the big bands of George Hudson and Nat Towles. In 1951 he was not only playing alto with Louis Jordan’s big band but contributing arrangements. He served in the Marines and studied music in college, arriving in New York in 1958. Nelson had brief stints with Erskine Hawkins, Wild Bill Davis, and Louie Bellson, making his recording debut as a leader in 1959. He worked with the Quincy Jones Orchestra during 1960-1961 and then became in great demand both as a writer and for his playing. After moving to Los Angeles in 1967, Nelson occasionally led a big band but mostly worked in the studios, writing for television and movies.
In the 1959-1961 period, in addition to cutting the classic Blues and the Abstract Truth for Impulse! (which includes the most famous version of his “Stolen Moments”), Nelson led eight record dates for New Jazz, Moodsville, and Prestige, all of which have been reissued in the Original Jazz Classics series. Meet Oliver Nelson is a quintet set with trumpeter Kenny Dorham and pianist Ray Bryant; Takin’ Care of Business has his saxophone sounding quite comfortable in a group with organist Johnny “Hammond” Smith and vibraphonist Lem Winchester; and Nelson does the impossible and holds his own with the explosive altoist Eric Dolphy on Screamin’ the Blues and Straight Ahead.
Nocturne puts the emphasis on ballads, Main Stem is a jam session–flavored date with trumpeter Joe Newman and pianist Hank Jones, and Afro-American Sketches was the first Oliver Nelson big band date. Also not to be missed is Soul Battle, which has the tenors of Nelson, King Curtis, and Jimmy Forrest challenging each other on blues and basic material including “Perdido.”
Oliver Nelson’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1975 when he was just 43 was a major loss.
Bio courtesy of Concord Music Group
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