Cannonball Adderley ‘Big Man’ CD (Next Gone/Concord) 4/5

cannonball-adderleyLike any major jazz musician, alto saxophonist Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley went through various stylistic phases in his illustrious career and this last ever album was in fact recorded before his premature death in 1975, but released posthumously, and it captures him an altogether different mood from the progressive hard bop and soul jazz merchant of his early years. Instead, what we have here is a vaster orchestral conception, with the notable arrangements of David Axelrod, and this is more akin in parts to a film soundtrack, not necessarily a blaxploitation movie, but with cinematic orchestrations nonetheless.
Originally a double vinyl LP, the album features some of Cannonball’s favourite musicians of the period which means George Duke (under a pseudonym for contractual reasons) on keyboards, Airto Moreira on drums and percussion, and quite possibly most interesting of all the debut recording of a then twenty-one year old vocalist, Randy Crawford as well as former Count Basie lead vocalist Joe Williams among various others. Her links with the jazz world would remain intact and a collaboration with the Crusaders would catapult her to stardom. That was all four years away. Taken as a whole, the recording is a unique opus in the Adderley canon (no pun intended) in that it is influenced by the works of Gershwin (‘Porgy and Bess’) and Ellington and is conceived of as a continuous suite that explores in-depth the African-American condition and includes segments of both spoken and vocal words and only brief soloing from instrumentalists. This may alienate some who prefer lengthy soloing from the leader in particular, but Cannonball Adderley had simply moved on as a musician and human being.

If one can overcome these caveats, then there is still a good deal to enjoy and it does require repeated listens to fully appreciate the work and effort that both Adderley and Axelrod have collectively invested into the work. Funky bass line and strings combine effectively on ‘Anybody needs a big man’, with subtle keyboards from Duke and vocals courtesy of Joe Williams. The two had previously performed together on a live recording that Cannonball actively participated on and clearly there is a natural empathy between them here. Randy Crawford’s voice is immediately recognisable and takes centre stage on ‘Gonna give love a try’ with minor chord keyboards and strings, and some lovely jazz tones are added by Don Menza on flute. The nearest the music gets to 1970s funk-tinged jazz is on the Blackbyrds sounding, ‘Hundred an’ one year’, where Cannonball finally extends on all too brief solo. Gospel and jazz emerge hand in hand on ‘Grind your own coffee’, with accompaniment from George Duke on electric piano, while the influence of Axelrod is prominent on ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ with Joe Williams in fine form on lead vocals. The narration in between numbers does take some getting used to it has to be stated Not everything is essential and ‘The broomstick song’ could have been dispensed with. However, this is an ambitious and creative last work from Cannonball Adderley, and it leaves one wondering what he might have come up with next. Perhaps, a return collaboration with Miles Davis might have beckoned in the early/mid 1980s. We shall never know the answer to that and many other questions, but what does remain fully intact is the immeasurable contribution that Cannonball has made to the evolution of jazz in key recordings, and in the process making our lives just that little bit happier. This final piece makes its own valuable contribution to that immense body of work.

Tim Stenhouse