By the time Oliver Nelson and his big band had recorded Fantabulous in March of 1964 for Argo, the great composer, saxophonist, conductor, and arranger was a man about town in New York. He had released some truly classic dates of his own as a leader in smaller group forms – Blues and the Abstract Truth and Full Nelson among them – and had done arrangement work for everyone from Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Johnny Hodges, Nancy Wilson, Frank Wess, King Curtis, Etta Jones, Jimmy Smith, Jack Teagarden, Betty Carter, Billy Taylor, and Gene Ammons, to name more than a few. For Fantabulous, he took his working big band to Chicago for a gig sponsored by Daddy-O-Daylie, a famous local disc jockey.
It's not like Mark Oliver Everett (hereafter known as E) hasn't dealt with these themes before. His whole recording career, most of it done under the Eels moniker, has been full of brilliantly crafted pop songs that tour death, terminal illness, regrets, lost dear ones, a veiled belief in better days and times overlaid by thick angst, and now and then, actual bursts of bouncing joy and humor. So there's nothing really new thematically on the 11th Eels album, The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, and even its sparse, stripped-down, and lightly orchestrated acoustic folk feel is something E has often visited. He turned 50 while writing these songs, so maybe that has something to do with the heavy and regretful tone that washes through these rather muted, weary, and almost whispered musings, few of which even rise to the tempo of a slow shuffle.
This Impulse two-fer revives a pair of LPs by arranger, composer, and saxophonist Oliver Nelson, Happenings and Soulful Brass, released in 1966 and 1968, respectively. Happenings, a date with pianist Hank Jones, is the better album, unlike Soulful Brass, which was co-led with comedian/pianist Steve Allen. Unfortunately, both pianists are featured mainly on harpsichord, which tends to dominate, and at times overwhelm, the compositions.