Oliver Nelson, not unlike Clifford Brown, had a tragically short career that really only got started around 1960 and ended with his sudden death of a heart attack in 1975, at the age of 43. His career as a saxophonist and bandleader seems even shorter than those ~15 years would suggest, since he was such a prolific composer that some of his greatest musical contributions were made behind the scenes, writing TV and film scores and arranging for pop artists like James Brown and Diana Ross.
The Blues and the Abstract Truth was Nelson’s breakthrough, recorded and released in 1961 as part of his 6 album deal with Prestige Records. Before you even get to the music, the first real marvel of the album is the collection of musicians he got to join him in recording it. Nelson plays alto and tenor saxophone, Eric Dolphy is on alto saxophone and flute, Freddie Hubbard is on trumpet, George Barrow is on baritone saxophone (he doesn’t play any solos but he anchors all the horn sections), Bill Evans is on piano, Paul Chambers is on bass, and Roy Haynes is on drums. As the presence of Evans and Chambers might suggest, this album is a spiritual successor to Kind of Blue, and expands on the modal jazz concept. It’s a spectacular album, and the liner notes are unusually awesome because Nelson himself wrote them.
All the tunes were written by Nelson:
“Stolen Moments” is the album’s first and best tune. It’s got a blues feel in a modal form, Hubbard is in great form (aside from Nelson’s compositions and Evans’s piano playing, Hubbard is in my opinion the star of the show on most of the album), and the tune rightly became a standard:
“Cascades” is an uptempo hard-bop number that lets Nelson show off his tenor chops a little on the melody (he wrote in the liner notes that the melody “started out as a saxophone exercise [Nelson] composed while in school”), followed by great solos from Hubbard and Evans:
“Yearnin'” is a more straightforward blues:
Nelson really makes good use of his four-horn lineup in “Butch and Butch,” which (even though he doesn’t get a solo) really benefits from Barrow’s baritone in the melody line:
“Teenie’s Blues” is another straight ahead blues number that Dolphy really tears into, followed by Nelson who plays around with one of Dolphy’s lines:
I couldn’t find the sixth tune from the album, “Hoedown,” on YouTube, which is a shame because it’s interesting, if a little polarizing.