10 Tracks I Can't Do Without

10 tracks by Cannonball Adderley I can’t do without… by Tom Smith

In our series where musicians celebrate their inspirations, saxophonist Tom Smith picks his 10 favourite tracks by the musician whose sound and personality keeps him going back for more: Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderley (1928 – 1975)

Cannonball Adderely with brother Nat in 1966. Photo from Wikipedia

Among the top tier of jazz musicians, there’s a group of artists whose music just seems to make people incredibly happy – Oscar Peterson, Clark Terry and Chick Corea always seem to produce smiles on the faces of everyone who hears them, but for me top of the list has to be Cannonball Adderley.

Since discovering Cannonball when I was a teenager through my teacher Katie Brown, he’s become one of the artists I’ve returned to again and again. The playfulness of his personality is magnetic and the music he plays just feels incredible to listen to. His saxophone tone still sounds fresh, dark and full-bodied, oozing with blues and soul, and his recordings sparkle with life and energy.

Cannonball’s musical life was full of highlights, and over the years his quintet evolved to include many of the leading lights of ’60s bebop and over his career (especially towards the end of his life) he experimented with different genres and approaches to his style.

I hope that these, my favourite moments from various points in his career, can give a full flavour of his musical journey; there were so many great choices that his work on Kind of Blue didn’t even make the cut!

1. Easy To Love from Nippon Soul (Live In Japan) (1963)

If I had to pick one recording to symbolise everything I loved about the music of Cannonball Adderley, it would have to be this. Counted off at a hair-raising tempo, this version of Cole Porter’s classic song has to be one of Cannonball’s most virtuosic performances ever committed to tape. Apart from the briefest moment trading fours with drummer Louis Hayes (whose dialogue with the alto-ist throughout is also fantastic), Cannonball solos for the entire length of the track, and the results are mesmerising – this is stunning bebop language, executed at a crazy speed, with all the joy and effortless mastery of melody we expect from Cannonball.

2. Stardust from Money In The Pocket, Live at The Club, Chicago (1966, released 2005)

This album wasn’t released until 2005, 30 years after the saxophonist’s death, and nearly 40 years after it was recorded, but this version of Stardust has become an essential part of his discography. Cannonball’s warm tone and gorgeous vibrato are on full show in this performance, and his interpretation of both the verse and the chorus is a masterclass in song delivery. He has made it completely his own, yet Hoagy Carmichael’s simple melody is communicated crystal clearly. There’s also something magical about the sound of the audience throughout, the clanking of glasses and cutlery, and the hushed chatter of the crowd instantly transport me into a film noir scene in a jazz bar. For me this song is romantic escapism at its finest.

3. Hoppin’ John from Cannonball Enroute (1961)

Pure bebop sorcery from Cannonball, Nat Adderley and the quintet, this is the track I put on when I need a smile plastered across my face – it just makes me happy! Cannonball spits melodic bebop lines all over this cheery fast-tempo blues, and he makes it sound easy and effortless. As always, in amongst all the complicated, fast-paced and virtuosic language, it’s his simple bluesy melodies that cut through most. His meticulously placed rhythmic language frames the solo perfectly, keeping the momentum and energy at a peak throughout. This track also contains stunning playing from his brother Nat; it’s easy to overlook his contribution to his brother’s career, and their trading with drums is thoroughly connected and flowing. You can hear the family connection –  they pretty much finish off each other’s sentences.

4. Work Song from Nippon Soul, Live In Japan (1963)

Nat Adderley’s Work Song was a staple of Cannonball’s repertoire; next to Mercy, Mercy, Mercy it’s the hit he’s most known for, and over his career he recorded many different versions with the various iterations of his band in all sorts of arrangements. For me, this is the iconic version of the song; Cannonball’s solo intro and the first head build such tension, and the release in his solo is a thing of beauty. He thrives on the energy of the Japanese audience, stretching out and unleashing his filthiest and dirtiest language…

5. One For Daddy-O from Somethin’ Else (1958)

Working with Miles Davis in the ’50s cemented Cannonball’s place in the history of jazz, 1959’s Kind of Blue of course took the world by storm, but Cannonball’s earlier album featuring Miles from 1958, Somethin’ Else, feels like a similar, yet slightly bluesier forerunner. One For Daddy-O is Nat Adderley’s slow tempo minor blues, and Cannonball and Miles feel like natural musical partners on this album, their tones and approaches differing but perfectly complementing each other. Cannonball embodies blues and soul in this track, his solo sings out, it wails and cries, and he tells such a story. Hank Jones‘ comping brings such class to this recording, and the dream team rhythm section of Art Blakey and Sam Jones hold down the slow tempo with the perfect amount of restraint, masterful accompanying. Listen out for Cannonball’s solo break too!

6. Fiddler On The Roof from Radio Nights (1967)

A staple song in his repertoire, Cannonball made several recordings of Fiddler on the Roof, and even based an excellent 1964 studio album around it, but this live version from Radio Nights from a few years later stands out for the pure unrestrained energy of the quintet. Cannonball brings out his raspiest and bluesiest tone, every note crackles with energy, and he delves into Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders-esque soundscapes over the whole range of the horn. It’s fascinating to hear his playing move further in this direction as he got older. I can only imagine what it would have been like to sit in the room with this music unfurling – this is an absolute must-hear recording.

7. Exodus from Quintet At The Lighthouse (1960)

The whole album is a great introduction to Cannonball’s classic mid-career material, the compositions are all pure ’60s hard-bop staples, even Cole Porter’s What Is This Thing Called Love gets a funky rhythmic reworking, and newcomer Victor Feldman‘s Exodus in particular has everything you could want in an explosive, toe-tapping hard bop song arrangement. Every member of the band is digging into the groove and having a huge amount of fun with the material. Vintage Cannonball.

8. Just One Of Those Things from Things Are Getting Better (1959)

Some beautiful early career Cannonball is on display here on this album co-led with vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Closer to cool jazz than the music he would later record with his own quintet in the ’60s, Cannonball’s clarity of tone in this session is remarkable, and his rhythmic drive on this track in particular is propulsive – even with such heavyweights in the band as Art Blakey and Wynton Kelly, Cannonball’s note placement and sense of melody lifts the whole band up.

9. Bridges from The Price You Got To Pay To Be Free (1970)

A wild card entry for the list; this is a unique and rare instance of Cannonball singing. Many of his live albums have featured his wonderfully classy introductions, but it’s extraordinary to hear his familiar voice on a pop ballad. The sound of the saxophone in jazz is rooted in the tradition of imitating vocalists – the vibrato, the scoops, falls and wails, the accented punchy articulations, the husky low register of the tenor sax – and most of the stylistic staples of saxophone technique come from the art of singing. It’s always a rare treat to hear a jazz instrumentalist sing, as it tells part of the story of how they developed their sound – think of Louis Armstrong or Clark Terry. Concentrate on the bassiness of his tone, the speed and intensity of his vibrato, the shape of the melodies, the quality of his high register, and compare it to his saxophone playing on standards such as Stardust, or on his album with Nancy Wilson, the results are fascinating. This recording is an interesting listen to get the full picture of Cannonball’s life and career.

10. Mercy Mercy Mercy from Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! (1966)

Well, no list could be complete without this song, could it? Cannonball’s signature recording managed to become part of pop culture, a surprise crossover hit with fans of all genres of music, and this year has been inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame. This recording is full of vibe and energy. The tempo of the song sits perfectly – it’s as if it’s just that tiny, tiny bit too slow, but that’s the entire reason the groove sits so well! The melody has the most beautiful tension-filled build up, and the resolution moment is joyful. Playing this recording leads to inevitable head bopping, foot tapping, wide-eyed grins and spontaneous group karaoke – there’s no escaping it!

LINKS: Tom Smith’s website

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