May 26, 2009

Mercy, Mercy

We didn’t start the jazz archive project until 1995, so there is a long list of jazz artists we never had a chance to interview. Foremost among them for me was Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. If I had to pick only one musician who grabbed me and who I wanted to emulate, it would be Cannonball.

I can’t recall what the first recording was that piqued my interest in him. I can remember the Glenn Miller that my parents exposed me to, and I can remember Brubeck’s “Take Five” with Paul Desmond having a strong effect on me. With Cannonball it was probably his recording of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” because it was getting significant radio play and had such a great hook. At the end of the buildup in the chorus, Cannon plays a note that drips with soul and joy. Later I can remember singing along to his recording using the smarmy words from the Buckinghams, the classic line “My baby, she’s made out of love/Like one of those bunnies from a Playboy Club.” I wonder how Joe Zawinul, the author of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” felt about that cover version.

Cannonball was a guy who was blessed with just about everything you could want as a musician and an entertainer. He had a huge, flexible sound, comfortable with ballads, bebop or blues; he had a great band, co-led with his brother, Nat; he had two fine composers in the band, Nat and Joe Zawinul; and he always had dynamic bass and drums, first with Louis Hayes on drums and Sam Jones on bass, and later with Roy McCurdy and either Victor Gaskin or Walter Booker. This latter was actually my favorite Cannonball group. Roy McCurdy had a great viewpoint, figuratively and literally, about playing with Nat and Cannon. In our interview we were marveling at the live recording of “Country Preacher” and the reaction from the audience after the dramatic pause in the middle of the song. Here’s what Roy had to say about that, from our 1995 session:

RM: “I was behind them all the time, looking at them. And his brother was short and Cannon was tall. And they had a way of snapping their fingers and moving, and their behinds were both in sync you know. And they would be snapping and the behinds would be in sync. And during that pause, that’s what was going on, you know they had that little sync thing going. And then they’d go back and hit it. Joe would hit it, and the people loved that thing. It was a kind of a follow up to 'Mercy, Mercy.' Yeah it was really nice.

Along with all this musicianship, Cannonball was among the rare jazz musicians who had what you might call the “gift of gab,” but it was more than gab. He had a way of introducing the band, his songs, and his whole approach to performing brought the audience with him. He was profoundly hip, but didn’t have to work at it. As he was fond of saying “hipness is a fact of life, not a state of mind.” You don’t decide you’re going to be hip, you just are, and he was that.

I had a wonderful moment during an interview with pianist and arranger Shelly Berg. Without my prompting, he expressed better than I could, what made Cannonball so unique. Here’s what Shelly said, from our interview in 2000. I’m happy to share Shelly’s words here because they perfectly sum up what I have felt about Cannonball since around 1966.

SB: “[Cannonball was] the perfect culmination of every attribute. Impeccable technique, impeccable time, as sophisticated harmonically and melodically as anybody of his day, and yet so incredibly soulful and bluesy. And you put all those things together and there’s just no other player for me that’s ever synergized all those things so well. And nobody’s ever swung any more than that.

I was fortunate to see Cannonball perform on three or four occasions. A couple of times he came to a club in my hometown, Rochester, NY. In one case it was a library concert and I remember discovering the reality of the jazz artist. The band seemed to be running late, and it was informative to watch the band members, Cannonball, Joe Zawinul and the rest, carrying their own drums, keyboards, etc., and setting them up. There was no road crew for those guys.

Later on, at SUNY Fredonia, some very hip music students got together and brought the Cannonball Adderley Quintet to Fredonia for a three day residency, so I found myself sitting five feet away from Cannonball with a small group of saxophonists in a clinic situation. He called “Straight, No Chaser,” to which I happily knew the melody, and asked us each to play a couple of choruses. It was totally a capella, with no rhythm section. I can’t recall what I played. I’m sure it wasn’t brilliant, but it didn’t matter. He was gracious and hip, even at 9 a.m.

Fortunately most of Cannonball’s LP’s have been reissued on CD. Among my favorite recordings that my readers might love I would include:

• “Hamba Nami” from Accent on Africa, Capitol Records, ST 2987.
• “I Can’t Get Started” from Nancy Wilson and the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, Capitol Records, SM 1657.
• “Country Preacher” from Live at Operation Breadbasket, Capitol, SKAO 404.
• “Sack O’ Woe” from Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, Capitol ST 2663.

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