Friday, April 12, 2013

The Unlearned Traveler's Tales, or, In Praise of Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth

Thus far I have been discussing entrance points to jazz -- first albums, second albums, avoiding albums, and the like.  It's like that section of a guidebook where they tell you what to pack, how to get to the country, and give you a potted history you skip.  It's preparatory.

It seems like it's time to stop talking about how to get into jazz, and to start talking about what you might want to see once you're inside.  --  Or, to uncoil that simple thought from its tangled skein of metaphor, to talk about some music I've liked.

I'm envisioning this as a series of posts, each talking about some music I've liked -- perhaps a musician, perhaps a particular track, or perhaps several recordings of a single song.  But usually, I suspect, I'll talk about albums (notwithstanding): it's the terms in which I grew up thinking of music, and it's how I still largely do.

A few words of warning -- or, somewhat less grandiosely, of classification -- before I begin.

First, I've been exploring largely at random, and I'll be talking about some of the music I've discovered in the same way.  These aren't best of lists; they're things I've heard and liked.  I'm not systematically going through the Great Music; I'm browsing, and talking about what I've found.

Second, do remember that I am an extremely uninformed listener.  I'm in new territory.  Some of these entries will be the equivalent of saying "Wow, I was in Rome, and there's this large building, and one of its ceilings is really nice.  Bit high up though."  Other entries will be the equivalent of walking into a tourist attraction and mistaking the refreshment stand for the main site and gushing about it.  --  My hope, of course, is that the naive view might be worth hearing.  (If you want expert guidance instead, of course, there's lots of places to look for it.)

And finally -- and most importantly -- my status as an uninformed listener will really hamper what I can say about the music.  In some cases I'll have some idea of why I like it; but in other cases I won't.  Even in cases where I do have some idea, I usually won't have the conceptual vocabulary to really pin down what I'm liking about it.  Description always requires knowledge; understanding something simple such as first-blush enjoyment requires a great deal of it.  I don't have that knowledge.  These are reports more than analysis.

All that said, I want to write about one of my favorites of the albums I've heard since I began my recent explorations into jazz, one that I liked instantly at first listening, and have just continued to like more the more I've listened to it.  (And while I don't know for certain -- my listening is across too many formats and programs to keep accurate count -- I think I've heard it more times than any other jazz album I've listened to in the past few months.)  It's one that (unlike some other albums I've liked) I'd not only never heard before, but I'd never even heard of before.  The album is by Oliver Nelson, and it's called The Blues and the Abstract Truth, and it was recorded and released in 1961.

One question I can't answer is how I came upon this particular album -- since I did, early.  It's hardly an obscure album -- this top one hundred jazz albums list, for instance, currently* places it at #23 of all time.  On the other hand, it's #23, not a top ten or even top twenty album; which is to say, it's a classic, and it's some people's favorites, but it's not a consensus top-tier album, unless the tier in question is pretty broad.  Thus, for instance, it's not on any of the dozen lists of starter albums which I discussed and linked to in this post.  It's mentioned in comments on a few, but I don't think I saw those before.

Of course, I looked at other lists too, including a lot of longer ones.  And it's on some.  I'm pretty sure that I myself got it off of this top 25 list.  (It's also on this top fifty list, this top 100 list, and this one (as well as the previously linked one.))  But it's not a consensus pick by any means.

So why did I focus on it?  Sheer chance clearly had a lot to do with it.  The fact that my local public library (bless it!) had a copy, and that that copy was neither checked out nor damaged, played a big role.  Might have even been dispositive.

But I think I focused on it because of its title.

In a strange land, we grab onto familiar.  I seek out bookstores in foreign countries, even ones where I don't speak the language.  Many Americans seek out McDonald's; Chinese tourists eat at Chinese restaurants in Europe.  And so forth.  Well, I'm far more of a word person than a music person -- I know more about their use, their composition, their aesthetic power and effects.  Which is not to say I don't love music (obviously), but I am at home in words, and abroad in sounds.

And The Blues and the Abstract Truth is an absolutely awesome title.

I'll admit I do this more often than I should.  Looking at a list of jazz albums, or jazz songs, I latch onto great titles.**  It's not unlike judging an album by its cover, which is barely a half-step away from the proverbial mistake about books.  Now, it's true that an album's cover (like a book's) is an artistic and aesthetic object in its own right -- there are good ones and bad ones.  It's just that the quality of a cover isn't correlated at all with the quality of the book/album it wraps.  It's a separate issue.  So to judge one by the other is simply silly.  (Hence, proverb.)  And while I'm not sure that the same is true of titles to quite the same extent -- particularly, perhaps, in the case of stories, novels, poems rather than music -- it's basically a slight correlation, and a silly way to pick music.

But in the midst of vast riches, we grab onto things for odd reasons, or none.  And this is, often, mine.

So enough about the title, then.  What about the music?

Well, it's pretty much an all-star band.  Not quite as much as Kind of Blue, perhaps, but close.  In fact, one person -- the pianist, Bill Evans -- is the same on both albums.  And he is, as I noted before, a star.  Of the other performers, Eric Dolphy (flute & alto sax (& maybe bass clarinet?)) and Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) were both major jazz musicians in the 1960s, being the leaders on important albums of their own, and sidemen on many other important albums as well.  Paul Chambers, the bassist, didn't have, to the best of my extremely limited knowledge, as important a career as a bandleader as Evans, Dolphy and Hubbard each went on to, but he did appear on a great number of important albums as a sideman, including a lot of albums with both Miles Davis and John Coltrane.  Roy Haynes, the drummer, I know less about, but he's been prolific both as a bandleader and as a sideman.  (And I don't know anything at all about George Barrow, who played baritone sax on the album.)  Overall, though, it's clearly a fabulous band.

What about Oliver Nelson, the bandleader (and player of alto sax)?  Well, he definitely made a lot of albums.  Most of them, however, get a mixed reception -- except The Blues and the Abstract Truth.***  Here's a discussion thread on the topic of what other Nelson albums to listen to as a follow B &AT.  I must admit I haven't yet followed up on any of those suggestions, though.  Given that I have so much to explore, I haven't quite felt motivated, much as I love The Blues and the Abstract Truth itself.****  (If anyone has any affection for any particular Nelson albums apart from The Blues and the Abstract Truth, please feel free to sing its praises in comments.)

The album itself, incidentally, is pretty short -- six tracks, totaling 36.6 minutes.  And, unlike many other classic jazz albums, it hasn't been released in an expanded version, including lots of alternate takes, etc.  (This tendency is a mixed blessing: given jazz's improvisational nature, alternate takes are often worthwhile and are certainly interesting; but it can be overwhelming, at least for the newcomer.)  Nelson wrote all six of the songs.  The track titles are: "Stolen Moments", "Hoe-Down", "Cascades", "Yearnin'", "Butch and Butch" and "Teenie's Blues".*****

Ok.  But what's so good about The Blues and the Abstract Truth?  What makes it so special?

Here's where my ignorance, alas, comes into play: I simply don't know.

I can tell you that it is incredibly accessible, even to those new to jazz -- rather in the way that Kind of Blue is.  One doesn't put it on and find it hard to follow; you put it on and it just sounds great.

The solos are all fabulous.  They also seem to have a more straightforward relationship to each other, and to the main theme of each piece, than in a lot of jazz.  They're more obviously melodic.  They're catchy, gorgeous, driving, relaxing, by turns.

Incidentally, some people (at least in this discussion) seem to think the second track, "Hoe-Down", is not as good as the rest of the album.  Speaking personally, I love it; sometimes it's my favorite track.  (Other times other tracks are; often, I just like them all.)  I suppose I'm missing some flaw they hear.

I really like Dolphy's flute.  Flute is not a major jazz instrument -- certainly not like the sax, trumpet, bass, piano or drums -- but it works really well here, and the contrast in tone color is fabulous.

Actually, my (amateurish and vague) sense is that one of the marvels of this album is precisely its tone color.  The mixing of the various winds -- several saxes, trumpet, flute -- really works, and creates a gorgeous sound palette, which Nelson and the others work with in really entrancing ways.

It is, in short, a great listen.  Highly recommended (even as your second album, if you haven't yet moved beyond your first).  It's fun, captivating, beautiful.  Just marvelous music.  But, truth be told, I don't really know why it is.

...Did I mention it has a great title?

Hmm.  This witness doesn't seem to know much about the case, your honor.  Can we call another?
This record is as good as anything in jazz music, I think.... you've got a lot of musicians who are at a very exciting point in their development. ... on bass clarinet, Eric Dolphy did things that other musicians, even classical musicians, could not do. Great leaps of intervals, great playing of octaves in his music, from top to bottom, very fast and very easily. It's very hard to do that on that instrument, I have been told.

Oliver Nelson... [had] the ability to make a very small group sound large. So you hear the opening lines of "Stolen Moments" which we played a bit earlier, and you think that you're listening to a much larger band than you're hearing. That shows very good writing. He was a very studied musician. And with this very particular record, he was anxious to explore the chordal structure of the blues. He does that well. He also refers to the basic Gershwin structure of "I Got Rhythm" as being something that he wanted to work from here.... The blues is all through this record....

...It would be criminal not to mention the rhythm section of this album. These are three of the greatest players ever assembled for any session, I think.... And, they're full collaborators in the music. Please do not omit this rhythm section as you listen to this recording.

-- Murray Horwitz. & A.B. Spellman
Ah, that's better.  Another?
Oliver Nelson is known primarily as a big band leader and arranger, he is lesser known as a saxophonist and organizer of small ensembles. Blues and the Abstract Truth is his triumph as a musician for the aspects of not only defining the sound of an era with his all-time classic "Stolen Moments," but on this recording, assembling one of the most potent modern jazz sextets ever... "Stolen Moments" really needs no comments, as its undisputable beauty shines through in a three-part horn harmony fronting Hubbard's lead melody. It's a thing of beauty that is more timeless as the years pass. The "Blues" aspect is best heard on "Yearnin'," a stylish, swinging, and swaying downhearted piece that is a bluesy as Evans would ever be. Both "Blues" and "Abstract Truth" combine for the darker "Teenie's Blues," a feature for Nelson and Dolphy's alto saxes, Dolphy assertive in stepping forth with his distinctive, angular, dramatic, fractured, brittle voice that marks him a maverick. Then there's "Hoedown," which has always been the black sheep of this collection with its country flavor and stereo separated upper and lower horn in snappy call-and-response barking. As surging and searing hard boppers respectively, "Cascades" and "Butch & Butch" again remind you of the era of the early '60s when this music was king, and why Hubbard was so revered as a young master of the idiom. This CD is a must buy for all jazz collectors, and a Top Ten-Fifty favorite for many.

-- Michael G. Nastos
Right, that's how you talk (and think) about music.  How about one more?
...a rare marriage between an arranger-composer's conception and the ideal collection of musicians to execute it. The material is all based somehow on the blues, but Nelson's structural and harmonic extensions make it highly varied, suggesting ballads, hoedowns, and swing. The band is one of those groupings that seem only to have been possible around 1960, a roster so strong that the leader's name was actually listed fourth on the cover. Nelson shares the solo space with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, alto saxophonist and flutist Eric Dolphy, and pianist Bill Evans, while bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Roy Haynes contribute support and baritone saxophonist George Barrow adds depth. In stark contrast to Dolphy's brilliant, convulsive explosions, Nelson's tenor solos are intriguingly minimalist, emphasizing a tight vibrato and unusual note choices. It's not quite Kind of Blue (nothing is), but Blues and the Abstract Truth is an essential recording, one that helped define the shape of jazz in the '60s.

-- Stuart Broomer

Er, right.  All that.  That's what I would have said, if I'd had the technical vocabulary.  (Cough, cough.)

In my own voice, all I can say is it's beautiful.  Give it a listen.

* The list is by majority vote, so its rankings change over time.

** E.g., album titles:
(Compare "Live in/at...", "The Complete...", etc.  Or any of Miles Davis's terrible puns on Miles (Milestones, Miles Ahead, Miles to Go, etc.)

*** None of them have anywhere near as good titles as The Blues and the Abstract Truth.  Clearly that's the main factor here.

**** One obvious place to begin might seem to be the album More Blues and the Abstract Truth, but Wikipedia says of the latter that it "features an entirely different band and bears little resemblance to this record", while notes that "unlike the original classic [The] Blues and the Abstract Truth set from three years earlier, Oliver Nelson does not play on this album," and adds that it "falls short of its predecessor."  None of which means it isn't good, but all of which is enough to make it not the obvious, immediate go-to follow-up its title clearly meant one to think it was.

***** Nelson seems to have used up his good title quota on the album title.

† Viz:
`What do you know about this business?' the King said to Alice.
`Nothing,' said Alice.
`Nothing WHATEVER?' persisted the King.
`Nothing whatever,' said Alice.
`That's very important,' the King said, turning to the jury.

-- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 12, 'Alice's Evidence'

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