Julian “Cannonball” Adderley was one of the most versatile jazz saxophone players I’ve ever heard. He could play sweet, mellow tunes and standards, deftly spacing notes in exactly the right places, shift into a seductively syncopated rhythm, or blast you out of your seat with a fantastically funky groove. “Sack ‘O Woe,” “Work Song,” “Jive Samba,” and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” rank among his best known compositions, but those songs are only just a fraction of the dynamic gems he recorded. Anyone who has been moved by the stirring call of “Stand Tall” or “Why (Am I Treated So Bad?)” knows the triumphant power of this man’s music. A “cannonball” indeed!
After a short stint as a high school band director in his native Florida, Cannonball Adderley formed a quintet that included his brother Nat on cornet. The band struggled for a few years and Cannonball took side jobs, one of them with Miles Davis, most notably on his classic album Kind of Blue. After leaving Miles’s group in 1959, the Cannonball Adderley Quintet signed with Riverside Records and recorded several well regarded albums before moving over to Capitol in 1964.
I recently picked up a copy of what is ranks as Cannonball Adderley’s strangest album, Soul Zodiac. This is a concept album of sorts, with Cannonball putting his musical touch on the entire zodiac, from Aries to Taurus. Besides the album’s theme, this was also a musically dramatic departure for Cannonball, with lots of spacey fusion-type compositions, splashes of psychedelic guitar, and spoken word descriptions of each zodiac sign by DJ and astrology buff Rick Holmes,. Despite the unconventional nature of the album, there is some real magic in the music thanks to strong performance by both Adderley brothers, George Duke on keyboards, and Ernie Watts on sax and flute. Produced by David Axelrod, this was album originally released as a two record set in 1972, but can now be heard on one single CD. Not the best introduction for anyone wanting to discover Adderley’s music, but a worthwhile one for open-minded fans to savor.
Cannonball Adderley passed away in 1975, just a month before he would have turned 47. By all accounts, he was a very kind, open-hearted and articulate man. To lose such a great musician and person at a relatively young age was a definite loss to the music industry, but luckily Cannonball Adderley left behind a wealth of great music. There are tons of Cannonball Adderley albums out there, but one of his most acclaimed studio albums is 1958’s Somethin’ Else. Beginners might do well to start with one of several excellent compilation albums, such as The Definite Cannonball Adderley, Deep Groove: The Best of Cannonball Adderley, or Walk Tall: The David Axelrod Years. But be wary of The Verve Jazz Masters, which contains weaker and less interesting material. In addition to those titles, check out top-notch live albums such as At the Lighthouse, The Cannonball Adderley Sextet in New York, and In San Francisco. Cannonball and his various groups were definitely at the top of their games during these live performances.