Oliver's talents as an arranger-composer were so much in demand that unfortunately he was not recorded nearly enough as a performer. On both the alto and tenor saxophones he's a force to contend wiith, a definitive, majestic improviser who plays without the least doubt, hesistancy or tentativeness: each extemporized solo is practically a finished composition. His only rival, in that regard, is Dexter Gordon.
On at least three occasions--the date preceding this one and the classic "Blues and the Abstract Truth"--Oliver was insistent on including the controversial, avant garde player, Eric Dolphy. For the most part, it was a good call on Oliver's part. On the opening, title track, Dolphy's squawking, talking bass clarinet sounds oddly out of place, but on the remaining tracks, all featuring Dolphy's alto saxophone, the exchanges are spirited and, despite the contrast or because of it, illuminating. Spurred by Dolphy's range-busting top tones and virtuosic technique and harmonic complexity, Nelson's consummate command is all the more impressive. No player employs tension and release more effectively than Oliver Nelson (check out, especially, his Perdido solo on "Soul Battle" and his solo on the title tune of "Mainstem"), who eschews scales and "running the changes" in favor of daring and bold statements, often reaching thrilling climaxes and triumphant resolutions.
With these musicians (including the underrated trumpeter Richard Williams), feeling blue is occasion for celebrating.