I have to admit, I ran across the name “Cannonball” Adderley for the first time on an album by the Miles Davis sextet. Kind of Blue is probably the best selling jazz album in history, and like many musicians, I have memorized every note. Miles had fired John Coltrane for continued drug problems, and had filled the saxophone spot in his quintet with the bluesy sound of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. When Coltrane appeared to have gotten clean, Davis brought him back into the group and expanded his quintet to a sextet. It was another stroke of genius by Miles, as the two saxophone players interacted brilliantly with each other. (It also was a bit of insurance, if the new sobriety of Coltrane wasn’t as long lasting as hoped.)
Adderley was a big man, born and raised in Florida before moving to New York. It was in high school that his schoolmates gave him the nickname “cannibal”, after his enthusiastic appetite for food. Over time this morphed into “Cannonball”, and stuck with the alto saxophonist for the rest of his career. Adderley was recognized in New York as one of the greatest alto sax players since Charlie Parker, and had some success as a bandleader with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. One album that just hit me in the gut like a cannonball is Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!, Live at The Club. Released in 1966, I have an endless appetite myself for listening to the bluesy, soulful playing on this record.
Cannonball is the leader of the group, and plays alto saxophone. The rhythm section is Roy McCurdy on drums, Victor Gaskin on Bass, and Joe Zawinul on piano and electric piano. The cornet player is Cannonball’s brother, Nat Adderley. Nat always preferred the darker sound of the conical shaped cornet over the trumpet, and played on every record of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet I know of. Now I dig this entire record, but my favorite tune and the big hit of the release is the title tune, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”. I can listen to that one on repeat all day long. The album is a live recording, and you can hear Adderley preach a little to the audience as he introduces the tune. The crowd is engaged, and is eatin’ it all up. The groove of this number, composed by Zawinul, just scratches right where it itches.
There is a bit of salesmanship on the album. The original notes to the LP describe the album as being recorded at Club DeLisa in Chicago, which had recently been renamed “The Club”. It wasn’t until I read the updated liner notes to the CD release that I learned the album was really recorded at Capital’s Hollywood studio, with a live audience. Adderley was friends with the manager of “The Club”, and was willing to give a little free publicity to his friend by fabricating a tale about where the album was recorded. In the end, I guess I don’t care where it was recorded, I am just very glad it was. It is one of my favorites.
Nat Adderley always seemed to be a little bit in the shadow of his brother. Among musicians, he is a very respected cornetist and composer. While Julian died of a brain hemorrhage in 1975, Nat Adderley continued his career for another 25 years. I absolutely love the playing of Nat Adderley, with its swinging blues based sound, and soulful tone. He led small groups of his own, composed and taught at several colleges (including Harvard). Like a number of jazz musicians of the time, he found himself more appreciated internationally than at home in the United States. One of his most successful compositions is “Work Song”, a tune that has become a jazz standard and recorded by dozens of musicians. Nat joked that it was his “Social Security’ song, as the royalties he earned from it would insure his bank account into his old age.
As a musician, I can tell you it is a special experience to play in a group with your brother or close friend. Rubbing shoulders with other musicians, you meet some wonderfully colorful characters. You get to know people both as persons and as musicians. Playing music is an emotionally expressive experience, when done well. To share that bond with a brother (or spiritual brother) is a connection that can’t be found in other places in life. That is part of why listening to the albums of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet is so very good. I highly recommend seeking out and listening to any recording of the group you can find.