Fame and renown sometimes seem to be handed out on a whim as one person will achieve international acclaim for doing something while the person right beside him or her doing the exact same thing with equal skill will be left out of the limelight. In some cases it's because one person's force of personality, or charisma, is such that it attracts attention to them like ants to honey, but in others there seems no real rhyme or reason.
In the world of jazz music there are certain players who have become as close to household names as is possible for someone playing in that genre and their names are known beyond the world of jazz aficionados. Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coletrane, and Ella Fitzgerald are names that even the most casual music fan will recognize as somebody special. Yet there are others, through no deficiency of talent, whose names are less familiar to the public at large. For some reason they've never captured the imagination of those outside intimate jazz circles, or whose recognition only came late in their careers or even after their deaths.
In recent years the name of Cannonball Adderley has started to gain in ascendancy as people begin to realize the amazing scope and range of his talent and the body of work he produced in his years as a performer and composer. Part of the problem for him was being a saxophone player in an already crowded field, coming along as he did in the years just following the death of Charlie Parker. However, according to John Szwed's liner notes for the Cannonball Adderley: Live In '63 DVD, part of his problem was that he did too many things too well. His supposition is that Adderley never garnered the appreciation he deserved because his abilities exceeded his audience's ability to absorb more than a small portion of his talent.
He could, and did, play everything from blues a la Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, avant-garde like Coletrane, funk fusion like Miles Davis, to recording a jazz version of Fiddler On The Roof. In fact it's only now that his last recordings from 1975, Black Messiah and Accent On Africa are capturing the imaginations of DJs and dance crowds. Whether or not Live In '63, part of the Jazz Icons Series 3 set co-produced by Reeling In The Years and Naxos, being released September 30, 2008, will bring Cannonball any more name recognition then he already has, it certainly shows off some of that famous versatility and virtuosity.
The eleven tracks from the two performances recorded in Europe in 1963 on Swiss and German television respectively, show off not only Cannonball's skill, but his entire sextet's as well. With Cannonball's brother Nat on cornet, Joe Zawinul on piano, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes on bass and drums respectively, and the amazing multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef playing tenor saxophone, flute, and oboe, watching them makes you wonder how they could have slipped under so many people's radar. They can handle anything thrown at them from hard be-bop to slow ballad type numbers, without skipping a beat or dropping the level of their intensity.
I have to confess that although I've know of Cannonball for years, it was only from the later stages of his career – specifically the Country Preacher – Live At The Breadbasket album he recorded with Jesse Jackson. None of those recordings had prepared me for what was in store on this disc, for the two concerts are examples of what I would call the pinnacle of jazz musicianship for that era. The liner notes give extensive details about each of the songs, but to be honest that sort of technical analysis of jazz is lost on me. I'm just not familiar enough with the terminology or jargon for it to be of much use. I rely on my emotional responses to what I'm hearing to guide me, and it was those that led me to the conclusion I reached above.
While for others it might be another track, for me the track in particular that hooked me was the second one on the disc, "Angel Eyes". While a reprise of the opening track, "Jessica's Day", in the second concert near the end of the disc, was good jazz, there was nothing about it to set it apart from any other well played jazz song. There was something about "Angel Eyes" that contained a spark of genius that took it into another realm. Maybe it was because it wasn't played with the usual vigor one associates with jazz of the early sixties, for it is a ballad, that made it stand out, or maybe it was just the sweetness of the playing.
Of course it didn't hurt that for this track Yusef Lateef was playing flute. I have to confess that I'm a sucker for jazz flutists, and Yusef's playing is as good as any other that I've heard from Eric Dolphy to Michelle Black. Not only can he make it soar with the best of them, he has a mellowness of touch that astounded me. It's very easy for a flute to become shrill, but the tone Mr. Lateef was able to produce was reminiscent of a bass flute. Perhaps it's his experience playing a variety of woodwind instruments that stood him in such good stead, but I've never heard the quality of breath control that he displayed from another flutist before.
I think it says a lot about the nature of Cannonball Adderley that he was willing to surrender the lead to another player so early on in the set. That implied, to me, that what was in the best interests of the music took precedence over everything else, even if it meant his time in the spotlight was reduced. Certainly he had his share of moments in the spotlight during the course of the disc, but it always seemed that was the case only because it was what was expected of him as the alto saxophone player in the ensemble, not because he was Cannonball Adderley.
Cannonball Adderley: Live In '63 is a wonderful opportunity for those of you familiar with the better known names in jazz to begin to broaden your horizons to include this multi-talented musician. Be amazed at his virtuosity and wonder at the breadth of his understanding of music. Yet, perhaps, most of all, wonder why you may not have heard him play before, because he's just too good to have been missed for so long.