Cult Classic: Oliver Nelson-Swiss Suite.

In 1971, Oliver Nelson and his all-star band were flown by Bob Thiele, the founder and owner of Flying Dutchman Productions, to the  Montreux Jazz Festival to showcase his latest composition, the four-part, Swiss Suite. It had been written by Oliver Nelson especially for the Montreux Jazz Festival, which was only in its fourth year.

Founded in 1967, the Montreux Jazz Festival took place in one of the most the picturesque parts of Switzerland. Montreux was framed by mountains and took place in the wake of Lake Geneva. This might seem like an unlikey venue for a jazz festival. However, since 1967, it’s grown into one of the world’s premier jazz festivals. By 1971, the Montreux Jazz Festival was still in its infancy.

Mostly, it was dominated by European musicians who headed to the Montreux Jazz Festival. So did some American musicians. Artists including Rahsaan Roland Kirk were trailblazers who headed to the Montreux Jazz Festival. Another trailblazer was Bob Thiele, who owned Flying Dutchman Productions. Bob realised the Montreux Jazz Festival was the perfect showcase for the artists on his label. 

That was why in 1971, Bob  Thiele flew all of Flying Dutchman Productions’ biggest names into  the Montreux Jazz Festival. This included Leon Thomas, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Gato Barbieri and Larry Coryell. They were all going to take part in a concert that showcased the music of Flying Dutchman Production. One of the centre-pieces of the evening was a set by Oliver Nelson. He had written a new four-part piece Swiss Suite especially for the occasion. 

Swiss Suite featured an all-star band comprising some of Flying Dutchman Productions’ biggest names and a whole host of session players flown in specially for the occasion. Accompanying Oliver Nelson when he performed Swiss Suite was an all-star band. This included everyone from Bernard Purdie, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Gato Barbieri and Stanley Cowell. No expense had been spared for the debut of Swiss Suite. 

Flying some of Flying Dutchman Productions’ biggest names from America to Switzerland wasn’t cheap. Bob Thiele’s label didn’t have the deep pockets that the major labels did. Luckily, Phillips, the electronics company and record label did. They released Flying Dutchman Productions’ releases in Europe. Phillips decided to picked up the tab for the trip. This was, after all, in Phillips’ interest. The appearance of the Flying Dutchman all-stars should result in more albums sold in Europe. Add in Oliver Nelson debuting Swiss Suite at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and it seemed a win-win situation.

By 1971, Oliver Nelson was thirty-three. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in June 1932. Oliver seemed destined to become a musician. He was playing in bands from the age of fifteen. Soon, he was playing with a jazz legend. Not long after making his professional debut, Oliver was playing second alto saxophone in Louis Jordan’s band. Everything it seemed, was going well for Oliver. Then in 1952, Oliver was drafted.

Having been drafted, Oliver spent four years in the US Navy. Oliver spent his four years playing woodwind in the 3rd Division band in Korea and Japan. It was in Japan that Oliver realised what he wanted to do with his life. On leave in Japan, Oliver saw the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. That night, Oliver realised he wanted to make a career as a composer.

When Oliver Nelson left the Navy, he returned home and enrolled at the Washington and Lincoln Universities. Oliver studied musical composition. After he graduated, he headed to New York and began working with some of the biggest names in music.

Now living in New York, Oliver Nelson found himself accompanying Ernest Hawkins and Wild Bill Davis. After that, he joined the Quincy Jones Orchestra. It was during that period that Oliver started recording for Impulse, whose A&R man was Bob Thiele.

Before signing to Impulse, Oliver Nelson had released a trio of albums, 1959s Meets Oliver Nelson, 1960s Nocturne and Taking Care Of Business. During 1960, Oliver collaborated with King Curtis and Jimmy Forrest on Soul Battle. After this, came Oliver Nelson’s Impulse years.

Between 1961 and 1968, he released a string of critically acclaimed albums on Impulse. He also collaborated with some of Impulse’s biggest names. His first collaboration was The Blues and Abstract Truth. Released in 1961, it featured Bill Evans, Roy Haynes and Eric Dolphy, who Oliver collaborated with on 1961s Straight Ahead. Then in 1962, Oliver Nelson and Joe Newman collaborated on Main Stem. After this, Oliver Nelson divided his time between his solo career and working as a composer and session player.

In 1963, he released Full Nelson for Verve Records. This was the first of two albums Oliver Nelson released on Verve during the sixties. The other was 1966s Leonard Feather Presents The Sound Of Feeling And The Sound Of Oliver Nelson. Mostly, he recorded for Impulse which was akin to his musical home. 

It was certainly where he released the best music of the sixties. This includes 1964s More Blues and Abstract Truth. After that, 1965s Sound Pieces, 1966s Oliver Nelson Plays Michelle were released. The same year, 1966, Oliver wrote, arranged and conducted the Sonny Rollins Orchestra on the soundtrack to Alfie. A year later, Oliver Nelson and Steve Allen collaborated on 1968s Soulful Brass. That was his Impulse swan-song.

Oliver Nelson’s next release was 3-2-1-0, a collaboration with Nobuo Hara and His Sharps & Flats. It was released in 1969, the year Bob Thiele founded Flying Dutchman Productions.

By the time Bob Thiele signed Oliver Nelson to Flying Dutchman Productions, he had moved into the world of soundtracks. This was something he had been doing this for a few years. He had written the score to Alfie in 1967, the three years later in 1970,  wrote the score to Zigzag. The same year, OliverNelson released another collaboration and his Flying Dutchman debut.

3 Shades Of Blue was a collaboration between Johnny Hodges, Leon Thomas and Oliver. It was released in 1970, the same year Oliver released his Flying Dutchman debut, Black, Brown and Beautiful. The other album Oliver Nelson worked on was Soul On Top. It featured James Brown With The Louie Bellson Orchestra. He had been drafted in to conduct The Louie Bellson Orchestra. Oliver it seemed was one of the hardest working men in music.This continued in 1971.

During 1971, Oliver conducted and arranged The Count Basie Orchestra on Afrique. Oliver collaborated with Leon Thomas on Leon’s live album Berlin. Then on 18th June 1971, Oliver played at Montreux Jazz Festival.

The Montreux Jazz Festival was the perfect European place for Flying Dutchman to showcase their music. The label’s biggest names flew in especially. On the 18th June 1971, the Montreux Jazz Festival was given over to Flying Dutchman’s biggest names. The centre-piece was the debut of Oliver Nelson’s four-part Swiss Suite, which he’d written especially for Montreux Jazz Festival.

A twenty-seven piece band had flown in to accompany Oliver Nelson for the recording of Swiss Suite. This included some of the labels biggest names and top session players. No expense had been spared. Especially with a band featuring a rhythm section of drummer Pretty Purdie, bassists Victor Gaskin and Hugo Rasmussen. Eddie “Cleanhead” Vison played alto sax and Stanley Cowell piano. Besko Petrovic played drums, vibes and tarabooka, Na-Na berimbau and Sanny Morgan congas. Eddie “Cleanhead” Vison and Gato Barbieri played alto sax and Stanley Cowell piano. Add to this a full horn section and it was an impressive sound. What better way was there to showcase Flying Dutchman and Oliver Nelson’s newest composition Swiss Suite. It features on side one of Swiss Suite.

Opening Swiss Suite is the title-track. It’s nearly twenty-seven minutes long and takes up the whole of the first side of Swiss Suite. As the bass and congas propel the arrangement along, bursts of blazing horns make their presence felt. Drums pound and horns growl. The arrangement in played in 6/8 time. Leading the band are alto saxophonists Eddie “Cleanhead” Vison and Gato Barbieri. They share the spotlight with Oliver’s alto sax. Their styles are very different. Gato’s alto saxophone rasps and growls. Then when Oliver’s alto sax enters, in soars high above the arrangement. Its ethereal sound is a contrast to Eddie roaring, howling sax. He blows his alto sax as if his life depends upon it. Power and passion are combined. The three saxophonists showcase their unique styles. Meanwhile, the audience love it. They whoop and holler as the band kick loose. Stabs of piano and grizzled horns join a myriad of persuasion as the track becomes a musical tour de force. It’s full of twists and turns, subtleties and surprises. This triumvirate of jazz virtuosos showcases not just Oliver Nelson’s latest composition, but what Flying Dutchman as a label were trying to achieve as they create groundbreaking music.

The rest of Swiss Suite features older tracks written by Oliver Nelson. Stolen Moments is the first. This is a very different version of the track. This is down to the twenty-seven piece band. They’re responsible for the slinky, sultry sound. Horns are at the heart of the action, as the rhythm section and piano drive the arrangement along. Congas and percussion are sprinkled across the arrangement. Neither Gato nor Eddie feature. They are  left to prepare for their solo spots so Danny Moore takes centre-stage. His trumpet solo is a show-stealer. It’s sultry and swings. For some people, the massed horns and trumpet solo gave the track an edge that hadn’t been present before. That’s no bad thing and is part of the reinvention of Stolen Moments, an Oliver Nelson classic.

Black, Brown and Beautiful has a much slower and understated sound. Horns rasp, their heart-achingly beautiful sound os akin to a cathartic outpouring of emotion. Especially Oliver’s alto saxophone. It’s a game-changer. It literally steals the show. As it soars elegantly above the arrangement it’s a reminder what Oliver Nelson is capable of.  Later, the horns grow in power and drama. They never kick loose. Instead, their sound is understated, and sometimes, dramatic. However, one thing never changes their beauty. The horns are at the heart of this tracks inherent beauty.

Blues and The Abstract Truth, which closes Swiss Suite, is another Oliver Nelson classic. It’s akin to dramatic explosion. Horns punctate the arrangement, as the rhythm section propel the arrangement along. The horns rise and climb above the arrangement. Their grizzled sound swings and adds an element of drama. Stanley Cowell’s piano matches them every step of the way. It’s the counterpoint to the sweeping, cascading horns. They quiver, shiver, blaze and kick while deliberate, stabs of piano and drums punctate the arrangement. In full swing, Oliver Nelson and his band are a musical marriage made in heaven. Oliver unleashes a solo. It you think is peerless. Then later, Pretty Purdie gets in on the act. He enjoys showboating and delivers a drum masterclass. He’s stolen the show. As Oliver Nelson and his band join together, they head to the track’s dramatic crescendo leaving 1971s Montreux Jazz Festival wanting more of this all-star band.

Swiss Suite features Oliver Nelson and his all-star band winning friends and influencing people at 1971s Montreux Jazz Festival. Listening to Swiss Suite, the audience were in awe of Oliver and his band. No wonder.The band features some of the biggest names in jazz, including Pretty Purdie, Victor Gaskin, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vison,  Gato Barbieri and Stanley Cowell piano. Many of these musicians were at the height of their career and  it’s no surprise that the audience were captivated.

From the opening bars of the newly composed Swiss Suite the audience are spellbound. No wonder. Three of the top alto saxophonists feature on the twenty-seven minute epic Swiss Suite. Oliver is joined by Eddie “Cleanhead” Vison and  Gato Barbieri. They seem to encourage each other to even greater heights. It’s akin to a case of daring do. Anything you can do, I can do better. After Swiss Suite Gato and Eddie exit stage left, to prepare for their own performances. There’s no drop in quality. 

The all-star band reinvent a trio of Oliver Nelson classics. New life and meaning are breathed into these tracks. To do this, Oliver combines avant grade, free jazz and traditional jazz. There’s even a nod to Charlie Parker on some tracks, given the inventive way that Oliver plays. On Black, Brown and Beautiful, Oliver remembering Miles Davis’ maxim about space. He leaves space allowing the music to breath. Other times, the music is dramatic, frantic, joyous and sultry. It’s also beautiful, elegant, inventive and considering how Oliver Nelson reworked three classics, groundbreaking. That’s what makes Swiss Suite such a captivating release. 

During the last few years of his life, he had turned his back on jazz. Oliver Nelson made his return to jazz in 1974 when he recorded an album by Oily Rags and arranged Richard “Groove” Holmes’ Six Million Dollar Man. A year later, Oliver Nelson was dead aged just forty-three. Jazz had been robbed of one of its most talented musicians, composers and arrangers. His cult classic Swiss Suite is a reminder of Oliver Nelson in happier times, when he and his swinging all-star band won friends and influenced people at 1971s Montreux Jazz Festival.

Cult Classic: Oliver Nelson-Swiss Suite.






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