John Vanore: A Requiem for Oliver Nelson

Arranger and trumpeter John Vanore reimagines the work of a brilliant but overlooked composer

John Vanore (photo by Dave Rainey)

John Vanore first heard Oliver Nelson’s music in 1966, when he was 19, and it changed his life. The moment came at the National Stage Band Camp at Indiana University. Vanore had just completed his first year of college. He was not a music major but had been playing trumpet since the second grade. “Oliver was there, directing a student big band,” he recalls. “They played ‘Reuben’s Rondo’ and it felt like lightning had struck. I went, ‘This is it. I’m doing this.’”

Vanore stayed in school and earned a degree in economics from Widener University in Chester, Pa. But after graduation he went on the road with Woody Herman. Six months later he returned to his hometown of Philadelphia, where he’s been a full-time professional jazz musician ever since. In 1972 he was asked to start a large jazz ensemble at Widener, which didn’t have a music department. The students played for love; Vanore could relate. He contacted Nelson, who sent him “seven or eight photocopied charts of scores and parts.” “I wanted to expose my students to Oliver’s aesthetic,” Vanore says.

By 1989 Vanore had formed a big band of the best Philadelphia musicians to play his own compositions and arrangements. He named it Abstract Truth, after Nelson’s iconic 1961 Impulse! album, The Blues and the Abstract Truth.

Between 1990 and 2013, Vanore released four Abstract Truth recordings on his own Acoustical Concepts label: Blue Route, Curiosity, Contagious Words and Culture. They did not make him famous. But among people who follow the fine art of orchestral jazz arranging, people who love Gil Evans and Maria Schneider and Oliver Nelson, they made Vanore something like a cult figure. His trademark was his unusual instrumentation: four trumpets, two trombones, one French horn, only two saxophones. There was another trademark: The inevitability and grace of Vanore’s writing, its cinematic pace and drama, came out of the Nelson aesthetic.

In 2015, Vanore, retired from Widener, was expecting to do another Abstract Truth album. But a different project had been in his mind for most of his life, and he found himself with music spread all over his kitchen table—yellow, torn photocopies of the pieces he had gotten from Nelson in 1972.

Nelson died at age 43, in 1975. He is remembered today mostly for his consensus masterpiece, The Blues and the Abstract Truth. But, Vanore explains, “Even many jazz experts don’t realize that Oliver left behind a staggering body of work. He composed for television and film. He was involved in about 80 albums. I own most of them. I believe that had he lived he would have been the heir apparent to Duke Ellington. He did not write cookie-cutter big-band music. There was so much more content, so much beautiful texture.”

Vanore spent a year working on the arrangements for his new album, Stolen Moments: Celebrating Oliver Nelson. “I had to walk a fine line,” he says. “I had no interest in a ghost band. I had to create my own perspective on Oliver’s spirit. I had to reimagine his music.” The ensemble is new. Vanore kept some Philadelphia colleagues from Abstract Truth, but used mostly A-list New York players and added a second French horn. The opening track, “Self Help Is Needed,” is a classic Nelson anthem, with a joyous, spilling sax solo from Steve Wilson. All those brass instruments give it bite. Nelson and Vanore give it elegance. “I kept the lead-trumpet part and the main melodies and the form,” Vanore says. “Then, inside, I’m retelling the story with my voicings.”

Nelson’s best-remembered composition is “Stolen Moments.” The original version on The Blues and the Abstract Truth, with its tantalizing hesitations and revelatory releases, is as flawless a work of art as the jazz canon contains. The solos by Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Nelson (on tenor saxophone) and Bill Evans are etched into history. Vanore’s version opens with a haunting prelude of his own: “I wanted to write something that wasn’t his, that leads into the song we all know.” The first statement of the melody is by four horns voiced exactly as in Nelson’s original. When the full ensemble takes over, in subtle dissonance and complex colors, the chart becomes Vanore’s. The album’s featured soloist is Wilson, one of the most reliably creative reed improvisers in jazz. Trumpeter Dave Ballou and trombonist Ryan Keberle excel on “St. Louis Blues” and “Greensleeves.” Of course, there is “Reuben’s Rondo.” Wilson smokes it. “El Gato,” from a 1975 Gato Barbieri album of that name, is mostly given to Bob Mallach on tenor saxophone, Wilson on alto and Greg Kettinger on guitar. For almost eight minutes, those three burn. Then, in the final four minutes, the explosive ensemble, two French horns screaming, engulfs them. “To sit in the middle of all that was really amazing,” Mallach says.

Says Vanore: “I had to make this record because Oliver Nelson must not be forgotten.”

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Stolen Moments: Celebrating Oliver Nelson by John Vanore on iTunes.