Today Acoustical Concepts released the album Stolen Moments: Celebrating Oliver Nelson, featuring a large ensemble conducted by John Vanore. As of this writing, Amazon.com does not seem to be aware that this item exists; but it is there for both CD purchase and downloading on its own Web page set up by CD Baby. Nelson is one of the most imaginative composers and arrangers from the twentieth century; and, tragically, he died suddenly in 1975 at the age of 43.
His Impulse! Records album The Blues and The Abstract Truth has been judged by many (myself included) as essential for anyone collecting jazz recordings; and, when Vanore founded his own band about 30 years ago, he named it Abstract Truth. To be fair, however, the success of the album probably had as much to do with its “all-star cast” as with the six Nelson pieces recorded. He led a sextet while alternating between alto and tenor saxophone; and the sextet members were Eric Dolphy (alto saxophone and flute), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), George Barrow (baritone saxophone), Bill Evans (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Roy Hanes (drums)!
However, Nelson was as comfortable working with a big band as he was with smaller combos. As a result, one of the most treasured items in my personal collection is the six-CD Mosaic Records box Oliver Nelson: The Argo, Verve and Impulse Big Band Studio Sessions. Those sessions took place between November 19, 1962 and February 17, 1967; and there is no question that they influenced Vanore. The ensemble on this tribute album is not quite as large as most of the groups in the Mosaic collection; but there is a good chance that it was Nelson’s approach to instrumentation during some sessions with organist Jimmy Smith that inspired Vanore to include two French horns (George Barnett and Adam Unsworth) in his recording sessions.
Jokes about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery aside, the most interesting feature of Vanore’s work is where he chooses to quote Nelson. Because his resources never imitate Nelson’s, Vanore’s versions never involve duplication; but those who know the Nelson tracks will recognize the rings of familiarity. However, those rings only resound in introductory and bridge passages. All of Vanore’s soloists put their own personal takes on the improvisations. This will allow those who admire Nelson’s work to appreciate the many new directions that his tunes can accommodate.
Then, of course, there is the actual Nelson composition named “Blues and the Abstract Truth,” which only showed up in recorded form on More Blues and the Abstract Truth. The sessions for this album were recorded in November of 1964. This was a time that was adventurous for many of the best jazz players, but it was also a time of frustration for those trying to follow the Third Stream in the course of their adventures. Nelson was never really one of those “camp followers;” but he appreciated that abstraction could be visceral, rather than just cerebral, even when it ventured away from a well-defined tonal center. “Blues and the Abstract Truth” was probably the best way in which he made his point; and I am happy to say that the point is made just as convincingly on Vanore’s new album.
The bottom line is that, while Nelson passed away over 40 years ago, Vanore has done a first-rate job in making sure that today’s jazz lovers get to appreciate how much he contributed during his lifetime.