This welcome installment in the Rudy Van Gelder Remasters series is essential for at least two reasons. First, it proves that Oliver Nelson should not be remembered only for what is inarguably his masterpiece, The Blues and the Abstract Truth . Second, it features a young and typically tenacious Eric Dolphy, who acquits himself wonderfully, as always.
Ironies abound on this album, beginning with its title: Oliver Nelson is quite rightly revered for his mastery of the blues form, but it was his sensitive and intelligent renderings that tended to use the blues as a springboard for his fertile mind and considerable arranging skills. A screamer he was not. Indeed, it is interesting—and instructive—to consider that only one year before The Blues and the Abstract Truth (henceforth TBATAT), which is hailed as the epitome of smooth (from an era, difficult as it is to conceive, when the word “smooth” could be used in a complimentary fashion while describing jazz), Nelson brought together a band that would record this down and dirty old(er) school session. It is not the all-star lineup of TBATAT (what else could be?), but this group is tight and very much on time, with the estimable Roy Haynes on drums and the still underrated George Duvivier on bass. The wildcards are Richard Wyands and Richard Williams, on piano and trumpet respectively. And, of course, Dolphy.
The tone is set immediately and authoritatively, with the group tearing into the eleven-minute title track, a vehicle that offers ample evidence of Nelson’s songwriting craft. But as is the case throughout these proceedings, the inescapable focus is on the fact that he could blow the roof off when he wanted to. Haynes and Duvivier hold down the fort, allowing Wyands to stretch out with a Bobby Timmins-esque solo (indeed, the influence of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers subtly pervades the proceedings). Then Nelson reenters with that shimmering, supple tone, giving way to Williams, who takes an enervated turn at the pulpit. And then, six minutes in, the guest preacher, Reverend Dolphy, blasts a bass clarinet sermon that interprets tradition in his inimitable way, all the while edging ever outward, moving into more free and formless—but always intelligible and accessible—territory.
An air of restrained celebration, of cerebral abandon, is maintained throughout, and it’s only on the stirring “Three Seconds” that we hear the obvious blueprint for the immaculate orchestration of unique voices that elevate TBATAT. And for anyone who has ever struggled to explain the wonders of jazz to a potential fan, cue up “The Meetin’” and if that doesn’t do the trick, it’s doubtful anything will. This is cool, classy stuff, a tad looser, a bit ballsier and a little more edgy than the work Nelson is mostly remembered for. Where one may envision TBATAT being recorded in a clean studio with pros in suits punching the clock, Screamin’ The Blues has the vibe of a smoke-filled, windowless room.
A few more words about Dolphy: with all due respect to the demonstrable talents and leadership of Nelson, Eric Dolphy is always going to stand apart as the superstar of any recording in which he is involved. Listening to him on this set is not unlike revisiting the watershed work of John Coltrane, circa 1957, specifically on Lush Life and Soultrane, where he fortified his celebrated “sheets of sound”, and knowing how that would evolve into his modal work with Miles Davis, then Giant Steps, and then the door to infinity he cracked open after that. Likewise, Dolphy is exhibiting his fluency of the hard-bop stylings that signified the better jazz from the mid-to-late ‘50’s: his alto work in “Alto-itis” nods to Charlie Parker yet exudes an openness that, say, Ornette Coleman could not approximate. He is already straining at the reins of convention, already figuring out, like Coltrane and, of course, Thelonious Monk, his way around the brilliant corners that lead to real innovation. It is no coincidence that in the years after this recording, Dolphy would align himself with both Coltrane and Charles Mingus, while continuing to push the envelope that eventually resulted in his own masterpiece, Out to Lunch. The interplay and overtones of true originality beginning to boil on Screamin’ The Blues are very much a premonition of even bigger and better things to come, but this album utterly succeeds as a collection of cats, in the back of the church, conversing about the past while pointing toward the future.