It must be tough to make a name for yourself as the little brother of such a towering figure in jazz as alto sax great Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley. Nat Adderley never did quite reach the legend status that his elder sibling did, but did manage to gain acclaim as a composer, cornet player, and important cog in Cannonball's band. Nat would suppress his own solo career by steadfastly remaining at his brother's side in his group from 1959 until Cannonball died in 1975 (Nat himself passed away in 2000).
That's not to say that Nat didn't make any good records on his own, though, he's made plenty of them during and after his brother's lifetime. The one that's widely and justifiably considered his best was created in January, 1960, shortly following the beginning of his long tenure in Cannonball's band.
Work Song wasn't Nat's first album as a leader; he had by then made a handful of records sporadically since arriving in New York from Florida with his brother in 1955. Once the brothers signed up with Orrin Keepnews' Riverside label around 1958, though, his studio activity picked up. As a leader, Nat loved to experiment with unconventional formats. His 1959 Riverside release Much Brass saw Adderley construct a front line of his cornet, a tuba and trombone, for instance.
Nat's next project sported an even more unusual ensemble structure. Work Song's front line consisted of himself, a cello and guitar. It's this configuration that gives the album a unique feel that I haven't found on any other jazz record.
The cello was supplied by fellow Cannonball bandmate Sam Jones. The guitar was from none other than the just-emerging phenomenon Wes Montgomery (Note: in the same week Work Song was recorded, Montgomery was also recording his own masterpiece album The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery).
Rounding out the core three on most of the tracks was Percy Heath or Keter Betts on bass, Louis Hayes on drums. Jazz Messengers pianist Bobby Timmons also contributed on four selections.
The lead-off title tune, of course, is the one even casual jazz fans will recognize. Covered by others hundreds of times over, "Work Song" became a pop hit for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass in late 1966. In Nat's early rendition here, his slightly sharp but precise muted cornet states the familiar theme as a call-and-response with Montgomery and Jones' plucked cello. The rest of the band soon joins in and Nat, Wes, and Bobby all provide concise, grooving solos.