Oliver Nelson’s “The Blues and the Abstract Truth”: A gateway jazz album

Sam Lewin

Oliver Nelson’s 1961 jazz album “The Blues and the Abstract Truth” seems to be a recent favorite of the Lawrence University jazz scene. Within the last week, the Lawrence University Faculty Jazz Ensemble, the alumni jazz group Lulu’s Playground and the ever-popular Combo 3 have played Nelson’s compositions from the album.
“The Blues and the Abstract Truth” is a favorite among jazz musicians because of its groove, personnel and intriguing compositions. However, it is also a great introduction to jazz for those unfamiliar with the genre, as it introduces numerous jazz legends and illustrates jazz’s dynamic emotional interactions.
One of the most exciting aspects of listening to jazz is that each musician brings his or her own influences and ideas to the music, and the combination of these influences and ideas results in a distinct sound. This aspect is especially evident on “The Blues and the Abstract Truth” as six jazz greats each bring their own ideas to Nelson’s blues-oriented compositions.
The line-up consists of Nelson on tenor saxophone, Eric Dolphy on flute and alto saxophone, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. Each of these musicians have made incredible contributions to the jazz world, and their distinct influences are what make this album great.
These diverse influences are most noticeable in the contrast between Nelson’s and Dolphy’s solos, especially on the tune “Teenie’s Blues.” After the group plays the blues-influenced melody, Dolphy immediately launches into a peculiar alto saxophone solo. He uses a variety of extended techniques and a wide range of intervals in his solo, yet still remains rooted in the tune’s melody.
After Dolphy finishes, Nelson begins a warm, smooth solo. In contrast to Dolphy’s use of abrupt twists and turns to convey his musical ideas, Nelson holds out long notes and accentuates his warm tone. He quickly develops a simple musical idea that he builds on throughout the entire solo. The contrast between Nelson and Dolphy’s solos is only one example of the distinct musical influences of “The Blues and the Abstract Truth.”
Nelson’s swinging yet deceptively complex compositions also give the album its unique character. The compositions on the album all pay homage to the blues, yet only some follow the traditional 12-bar blues form. Nelson typically extends the forms of his compositions, making them feel slightly different from most jazz standards.
The most famous composition on the album is “Stolen Moments,” a slow minor blues that features solos by Hubbard, Dolphy and Nelson. However, my favorite composition is “Hoe-Down,” which is a jazz-inspired version of an actual hoedown.
The melody of “Hoe-Down” is a 44-bar form, but the soloists use the standard 32-bar rhythm changes form. “Hoe-Down” always impresses me because of the way the musicians manage to make traditional Appalachian music swing.
Even though “The Blues and the Abstract Truth” was released in 1961, lots of the musical ideas it introduced still apply to contemporary jazz. The musicians on the album are all innovators and their outstanding playing results in a jazz classic that serves as a great introduction to the jazz genre for newcomers.