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Oleo (1954)

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Origin and Chart Information
“He got the title from oleomargarine, which was a big thing then, a cheap butter substitute.”

- Miles Davis

Rank 280
Written by Sonny Rollins

Saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ composition “Oleo” was introduced in a June 1954 recording session for the Prestige label by Miles Davis’ Modern Jazz Giants. Trumpeter Davis also opted to record two other Rollins compositions during the session: “Airegin” and “Doxy.” In Sonny Rollins: The Definitive Musical Guide, author Peter Niklas Wilson says, “This probably represents a singular achievement for a musician officially hired as a sideman: he [Rollins] brings three compositions to a colleague’s recording session, all three are recorded, and all three immediately become jazz standards.” Wilson quotes Davis saying that Rollins hadn’t even finished the tunes when he brought them in: “‘He...rewrote them right in the studio. He would be tearing off a piece of paper and writing down a bar or a note or a chord.... One tune he wrote was ‘Oleo.’ He got the title from oleomargarine, which was a big thing then, a cheap butter substitute.’”


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The session featured Horace Silver on piano, Percy Heath on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums. (This June session is combined on CD with a December session entitled Bags Groove which featured composer of that title cut Milt Jackson on vibes and Thelonious Monk on piano.) In his book Enjoying Jazz, Alyn Shipton notes that on “Oleo” Davis played his first extended recorded solo with Harmon mute which became a major characteristic of his playing.

In his musical guide to Rollins, Wilson describes the nature of the Rollins composition: “‘Oleo’ is a rhythm-changes composition with theme tones that are placed sparingly but in cunning rhythmic manner. It is further refined in that the A sections of the theme are only played by the trumpet, saxophone, and bass. Then in the A sections of the solos, the drums are involved but not the piano--a foretaste of the pianoless ensembles Rollins would lead in the late ‘50s.”

Rollins’ own trio with bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Pete LaRoca recorded “Oleo” in three separate concerts in 1959--in Stockholm, in Sweden, and in Zurich. Then in July 1962 Rollins recorded a live session at the Village Gate with bassist Bob Cranshaw, cornetist Don Cherry, and drummer Billy Higgins. (This session is available on CD as Our Man in Jazz.) In Visions of Jazz: The First Century author Gary Giddins describes their rendition of “Oleo.” “The long version of ‘Oleo’ consists chiefly of extended solos based on harmonic changes.... ‘Oleo,’ the best known of Rollins’s rhythmically wily originals, tends to incite his capricious nature (the 1954 Miles Davis debut is no exception.) In this version, the melody is never definingly stated--the musicians begin free, setting up a spectacular Rollins improvisation: fast, hard, exhilarating. Cranshaw provides a loping rhythmic gait in support, and Higgins alternates a loose four with a decisive backbeat. The melody is skirted, never confronted.”

“Oleo” continues to be one of Rollins’ most recorded compositions favored by both saxophonists such as Pepper Adams, Joe McPhee, and Eric Dolphy and pianists Bill Evans, Hampton Hawes, and Kenny Barron. It has also been performed by bassist Ron Carter, drummer Frank Capp, trumpeter Nat Adderley, guitarist Joe Pass (who recorded it more than once), and bassist Lynn Seaton. Since 2000 it has been recorded by Hammond B3 player Joey DeFrancesco, saxophonist Donald Harrison, and pianists Taylor Eigsti, Marian McPartland, and Keith Jarrett, who has also recorded it more than once, most recently in 2007.

- Sandra Burlingame

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Reading and Research
Additional information for "Oleo" may be found in:

Gary Giddins
Visions of Jazz: The First Century
Oxford University Press; New Ed edition
Paperback: 704 pages

(One paragraph on Rollins’ recordings.)
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Jazz History Notes
By the Same Writers...

Jazz History Notes

After Miles Davis’ initial recording with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins in 1954, he continued to keep Rollins’ composition in his repertoire. A live recording of Davis’ group in 1958 from the Plaza Hotel in New York features stellar work from John Coltrane (tenor sax), Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (alto sax), and Bill Evans (piano) in addition to Davis’ opening statement.

Later in 1958, pianist Bill Evans revisited the tune in a brilliant version with his trio.

An interesting extended live version (25 minutes!) from New York’s Village Gate in 1962 by composer Sonny Rollins enters into the realm of avant-garde jazz, with some nice work by Rollins and trumpeter Don Cherry.

Davis’ 1965 version is light years away from that of 1958. With a completely different group, the approach is more avant-garde than the earlier hard bop versions. As before, Davis opens the proceedings, and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley does some nice work, including a brief quote of the basis for Rollins’ tune, “I Got Rhythm.”

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Miles Davis
Jazz from the Plaza, Vol. 1
Sony 85245

Bill Evans
Everybody Digs Bill Evans
Original Jazz Classics 68
Original recording, 1958, Riverside Records
Sonny Rollins
Our Man in Jazz
BMG Int'l 185160

Miles Davis
Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel
Sony 66955

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

Sonny Rollins

Year Rank Title
1954 280 Oleo
1954 293 Airegin
1956 371 St. Thomas
1954 691 Doxy

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