Soft candlelight. The aroma of a good red wine wafting up from the wine glasses on the table. The anticipation of romance, and of finally being in the place you want to be, with the person you want to be with. The slight burn of alcohol on your throat as you sip the wine and the tensions of the work week are melting away. Good food, good company, good conversation, all the while with a hint of passion simmering beneath the surface. Warm smiles, giggles, and the scent of perfume or cologne from your dinner companion. The promise of love requited. The melancholy ache that comes from the knowledge that this time is short, the episode brief, and these perfect moments are stolen.
This is the mood and flavor of one of my favorite tunes ever recorded, “Stolen Moments” by Oliver Nelson. It is from his 1961 album, “The Blues and the Abstract Truth”, recorded on the Impulse label. I was going to write all about the mechanics of this tune, how the tune itself is a 16 bar form, but the soloists play over a 12 bar minor blues. I was going to explore the harmonic differences between playing a blues in a minor key and playing in the usual major key with a dominant seventh sound. I was going to lift up the hood, show you the engine, all the moving parts, take apart the transmission and put it all back together for you. Then I realized that sort of misses the point of why this is a favorite tune of mine. Just like a Corvette isn’t sexy because of the thermostat inside the engine, technical details don’t reveal what is great about this recording.
“Stolen Moments” is a brilliant, sexy tune because of how it captures the bittersweet emotions of those brief encounters with the person that owns your heart. The craving of the thought, “Why can’t it always be like this?”. The longing, wanting, yearning for more of these moments that are stolen away in a life full of responsibilities and demands. The beauty of a sunset walk on the beach, that will inevitably fade into night. The fragrance of the blooms on a magnolia tree, which will begin to fall off as soon as they blossom. The romantic evening that you don’t want to end, but time marches on and morning will come. If you haven’t experienced these times in life, you won’t get the full impact of what this tune is about.
“The Blues and the Abstract Truth” is the most successful album that Nelson ever recorded. He is a brilliant arranger, composer, as well as saxophonist. The names on this record will make the ears of any jazz connoisseur perk up. Oliver Nelson plays alto and tenor saxophone on the record, along with the great Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Eric Dolphy on flute and alto saxophone. The rhythm section includes Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums. Some of the arrangements include George Barrow on baritone saxophone, but he does not take solos on any of the tunes. This ensemble provided Nelson with an expanded palette of instrumental colors with which to work, and he makes full use of them.
I have only one reservation about this acclaimed album. I have never really warmed up to the tune “Hoe Down”, partly because of the order of tunes on the album. The opening tune is “Stolen Moments”. I’m left with a warm, fuzzy afterglow as the end of Nelson’s signature composition comes to a close. It seems like the perfect place for a ballad, or just about anything else in the world but “Hoe Down”, the tune that is second. The opening farmyard squawks of “Hoe Down” just hit me like a bucket of ice water over the head. It is a picturesque and inventive tune to be sure, but just always seems out-of-place to me. It’s as distasteful to me as punching in to work on Monday morning after a vacation.
Still, “The Blues and the Abstract Truth” remains an essential jazz album to know. The solo work of Hubbard and Dolphy elevate the brilliant arrangements of Oliver Nelson’s tunes. The album deserves every bit of acclaim it has received. You will forgive me if I have to program the order of the tunes on my playlist slightly differently than they appeared on the original album.