He's remembered almost entirely in popular circles for "Stolen Moments" (one of his many curious and haunting re-workings of the blues). Others recall that his composer credit flashes briefly on the screen on TV reruns of "Columbo" and "The Six Million Dollar Man." But Oliver Nelson needs to be reconsidered by music listeners for what he was - one of the most significant jazz voices of his generation, and certainly one of the most important big band composer and arranger of the 1960s.
It's no wonder Oliver Nelson was so eagerly embraced by Hollywood - his music is all about drama. He loved painting tonal pictures: A song with the word "Dawn" in the title is smoky, slight and tired; another with the word "Sidewalks" is noticeably jangled and hard-edged. Contrast plays a big part in his work. If the saxophones are shooshing along languidly, don't be surprised if they are busted up by staccato bursts of horns. And if you think at times you're listening to Bela Bartok or Aaron Copeland, remind yourself those composers didn't employ quite so much syncopation.
Since Nelson was schooled in both the American jazz and European music traditions, his arrangements can be intricate, but when it comes time for a solo, it's clear that Nelson (who was himself a brilliant soloist on tenor alto and soprano saxophone) has fashioned everything as the proper set up for the featured player.
Perhaps the skill he mastered most keenly was his ability to turn listeners on. As difficult as his music might have been to play, and as hard as it is to analyze, it is extremely easy to listen to.