There were only seven musicians on Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth in February 1961. But as Creed Taylor, the album’s producer, told me in an interview in 2008, the extraordinary way Nelson arranged the septet enabled them to sound 10 times larger. Even more surprising is that the entire album was completed at Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio in a single session. Who came up with the album’s unusual title? [Photo above of John Vanore by Dave Rainy]
"Me," Creed said. "I thought we should make a statement about the music. It was the blues, but it was an abstract blues that you hadn’t heard before. It was Oliver Nelson’s impression of the blues. Given the music, we had to package the record in a different way. The blues is supposed to be 12 bars and down and dirty. Here we had something like an architectural structure of something that existed in 12 bars but surely was abstract. And the music wasn’t trying to put anyone on. There was nothing contrived. It was the truth. Oliver meant every note he wrote. I’ve always liked that title."
Over the years, Nelson’s influence has turned up in many interesting places. In 1977, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker asked Aja’s horn arranger Tom Scott for a Nelson feel on Deacon Blues. As Scott told me in 2015, "I used a sound that mirrored Oliver Nelson’s orchestral style. I wrote in these ‘rubs’—two notes close together in the middle register played by the tenor and baritone saxophones. This produces a really thick, reedy sound."
Now John Vanore has released Stolen Moments, a tribute album that embraces the Nelson catalog with thrilling results. The song choices are smart, they’re in the best possible order and Vanore’s arrangements couldn’t be more vibrant and dynamic.
Here are the songs Vanore chose and the Nelson albums on which they appear in parenthesis: Self-Help Is Needed (Black, Brown and Beautiful), A Taste of Honey (from the album of the same name by Lloyd G. Mayers), Stolen Moments (The Blues and the Abstract Truth), El Gato (from the album of the same name by Gato Barbieri), St. Louis Blues (from Ramsey Lewis’s Country Meets the Blues), Blues and the Abstract Truth (More Blues and the Abstract Truth), Greensleeves (Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz All-Stars), I Hope in Time a Change Will Come (Black, Brown and Beautiful) and Reuben’s Rondo (Skull Session).
Vanore, who is from Philadelphia, assembled a dozen superb core musicians for this project, with others added on different tracks: Tony Kadleck, Augie Haas, Jon Owens and Dave Ballou (trumpets); Ryan Keberle and Dave Taylor (trombones); Adam Unsworth and George Barnett (French horns); Steve Wilson and Bob Malach (saxophones); Jim Ridl (piano); Greg Kettinger (guitar); Mike Richmond (bass); Danny Gottlieb (drums) and Beth Gottlieb (percussion).[Photo above of the orchestra, courtesy of John Vanore]
The musicianship is extraordinary throughout. It’s soulful, swinging and flawless, which is remarkable given the intricacies of the music and the twists and turns of Vanore’s charts. The beauty is that Vanore didn’t mess around with the purity of Nelson’s sound or turn his approach inside out. There was no need to. Instead, Vanore’s arrangements remain true to Nelson’s spirit, with new solos and fascinating introductions that only enrich the original material.
Vanore arranged and conducted the band and he played a trumpet solo on the title track. In college, Vanore had the good fortune to attend a summer program directed by Nelson. It was then that he decided to pursue a career in music. After college, he joined the Woody Herman band on the road. Back in Philadelphia, he was a first-call trumpet player for top artists who came to town, including Tony Bennett, Michel LeGrand and Louis Belson. Vanore currently is direcot of music at Widener University in Chester, Pa. [Photo above of Vanore conducting, courtesy of John Vanore]
In the press release that came with the album, Vanore is clear on why he avoided tinkering with Nelson’s work: “I would never take Oliver Nelson’s arrangements and record them,” Vanore says. “This isn’t a ghost band. I kept the identity and essence of Oliver’s music but made them my own. I’m trying to tell his story with my words.” And he does so royally. [Photo above of Bob Malach and Steve Wilson, courtesy of John Vanore]
A special hats off to alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, who handles Nelson’s soaring solos. My only wish is that they had included 3, 2, 1, 0 from Black, Brown and Beautiful. My guess is there’s an arrangement still sitting in Vanore’s leather bag.
JazzWax tracks: You’ll find John Vanore’s Stolen Moments (Acoustical Concepts) here.
JazzWax clip: Here’s Self-Help Is Needed, with Steve Wilson on alto saxophone…
Self-Help Is Needed