Sunday, June 1, 2008

That Oliver Nelson Sound

Oliver Nelson is not a familiar name to non-jazz aficionados but he should be. Nelson made his name with the composition "Stolen Moments" in 1960 and quickly found himself in high demand for television and film in the sixties and seventies. He toured with Quincy Jones in 1960-61 and the two became the driving force behind the sounds of tv and movies for over a decade before the crashing orchestral strains of John Williams in the mid-seventies ended their time at the top. But fallen from popular grace or not, his sound is distinctive to a fault. As musician Phil Woods said of Nelson, "He had what we all seek - an identity. He had that in his writing and in his horns."

Nelson's first full original score for a film, Death of a Gunfighter*, came about due to an interesting conversation. Universal Studios' Musical Director, Stanley Wilson, played a piece of music for Benny Carter (another favorite of mine) that Nelson had arranged. He asked Carter if he could reproduce that sound for the movie. Rather than try and come up short Carter simply said, "Why don't you just get Oliver Nelson?" Wilson called up Nelson and Nelson agreed.

I've been a fan of Nelson's work ever since I heard a live rendition of "I Remember Bird" back in the eighties and fell in love with the sound. Afterwards I learned that he died young, of a heart attack, at age 43 in 1975. I was immeasurably disappointed because at the time I had been wondering what he might have done lately that I could listen to. When I finally did listen to his work it became heartbreaking to understand that such a talent was lost forever at such an young age. But in the short time he composed he defined a sound that will forever be identified with tv and movies of the sixties and early seventies.

I first heard the piece I used for Frames of Reference, "Complex City," on a Verve Collection of Oliver Nelson compositions of the sixties that I bought in the early nineties. From the moment I heard it I was in love. Here was a jazz composer not afraid to let obvious homages to Aaron Copland, Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky (some of his favorite composers as well as Debussy) break through the jazz traditions. The opening of "Complex City" could have been composed by Copland, and most of the jarring, discordant breaks could easily be mistaken for something out of "The Rite of Spring."

Nelson worked on the scores for most of the big shows of the late sixties and early seventies. Even if he didn't compose their theme songs (he often didn't) he did the incidental music and scores for pilots, from Ironside to Columbo to The Six Million Dollar Man. Of course, this led to derision among many jazz aficionados at first (Horrors! Composing for Television?!?) and actually lessened his reputation for a time, until he was rediscovered by a new generation of jazz buffs in the eighties (Ahem, cough, people like me, cough) who didn't hold it against someone if they worked for a living.

If you're old enough to remember the television score sound I'm talking about listen to the piece at the end of this post. It's title is "A Typical Day in New York," another favorite Nelson composition, and one that was in the running for the soundtrack to my movie. In the end, it didn't have enough of the variation I was looking for but I may still put something together with it. When you listen to it, especially at around the 28 second mark, you can practically hear an announcer saying, "Tonight on Mannix..." When the song gets going shortly after that you can easily imagine a chase scene involving Steve McQueen or Jim Brown kicking some bad guy butt. It's got that Oliver Nelson feel, the one Stanley Wilson wanted so badly, and one I wouldn't do without it for anything. Give it a listen:


*Death of a Gunfighter has become notable as the first film to ever use the Alan Smithee directorial credit. Richard Widmark did not get along with director Robert Totten at all and had him replaced with Don Siegel who then refused to have his name put on the film because Totten had directed the majority of it and Siegel felt he had done a great job, despite Widmark's misgivings. Widmark would have none of it and the Director's Guild of America came up with the compromise of placing the pseudonym "Alan Smithee" in place of either Totten or Siegel.