Ladies and gents, I have a confession to make before I can lay out the rest of this article: I LOVE MUSICALS. Yes, I’m afraid it’s true. In fact, I love musicals so much that, for a good two years in my early teens, I listened to nothing but showtunes all day every day. No rock; no jazz; no grunge; no punk; no polka…. My friends would spend their days arguing amongst themselves over which Skillet album was the best, and whether Creed’s latest single rocked hard enough, but all I could bring to the table was an observation about how Andrew Lloyd Weber keeps re-using this one musical phrase in several different songs and how cheap that was, which was always met with hard stares of either disbelief or lack of comprehension. One of my brothers decided once that he’d like to become a classical voice major in college, and for several months he would spend his days bellowing out opera music in German and Italian, but when he wasn’t doing this, he would spend hours using his perceived gift to serenade anyone who cared to listen with selections from HIS favorite musicals. He would walk down to the underbelly of a huge concrete bridge near our house and belt out a rendition of “The Music of the Night” with intense emotion, and I would follow him around in reverent awe, as though I was a caveman and he was on fire. Months later, my brother decided that classical voice was not for him and moved on to other things. That was me though, in my early teens; nothin’ but showtunes twenny-fo’ sev, on REPEAT. Awww yeah.
Due to said obsession with showtunes, I became frighteningly well-acquainted with several musicals, to the extent that I was able to sing, on request, almost any song from any of my favorite musicals. Chief among these were Les Miserables, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Phantom of the Opera, and, last but far from least, The Fiddler on the Roof. I watched the movie version of this many times growing up, in addition to owning the soundtrack for it, so it remains very close to my heart even today.
Years later, I would discover the beauty of jazz from taking saxophone lessons, but that’s a different story for another time. The point is, Cannonball Adderley has long held in my heart the #1 spot so far as jazz saxophonists are involved. His tone was warm and soulful, his improvisation was melodic, and he had a speaking voice that would make the Reverend Jackson weep bitter tears and gnash his teeth with envy (see: the title track of Mercy, Mercy, Mercy: Live at the Club). The way that I feel about Cannonball Adderley is the way I’m told most people feel about things like baseball and the American Way. When I hear the music of Cannonball Adderley, my first instinct is to stand solemnly with my hand over my heart while tears build stoically under my eyes but never fall.
All this, of course, is just to say that a pairing of one of my favorite musicals with one of my favorite musicians is something that few people have ever been privileged to witness of their OWN favorite musicians/musicals.
I didn’t realize it for years, but most of the music that was written for The Fiddler on the Roof (by the great Jerry Brock) is essentially blues. Take a listen to Cannonball’s take on the classic song “Do You Love Me?”. He doesn’t touch the melody in any wrong way, nor does he change up the rhythm much at all. He slows the song down some, gives it a hardy dose of soul, and suddenly it’s the type of blues you’d expect to soundtrack Humphrey Bogart whisking Ingrid Bergman to and fro in a shadowed ballroom. Adderley’s improvisation style is extremely melodic and structured, which is a boon in this particular style of jazz. John Coltrane’s trademark “sheets of sound” technique, for instance, would create a jarring effect against such soulful notes; no, “Do You Love Me?” requires a certain amount of delicacy and constraint. And Cannonball Adderley is full to bursting-point with those particular attributes.
Another of Fiddler’s great dormant blues songs is “Now I Have Everything,” sung by the town tailor after winning the hand of the main character’s eldest daughter. In the musical, it’s far from the best song, bordering even on boring. Cannonball Adderley (and his sextet) transform this average piece into a wonderful and thoroughly listenable blues song. And the same can be said for “Sabbath Prayer.” And the Sextet’s rendition of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” remains one of the ONLY instances of jazz in which I consider the use of flute in any capacity to be fully justified.
Strangely enough however, the true gem of the album lies embedded in the bonus tracks, which aren’t even from the musical. Four random songs that Cannonball recorded around the same time as this album have been included on later editions, and, like the rest of the songs on the album, none of these ever made it into Adderley’s permanent repertoire (like most musicians of the time, he would record many versions of the same songs, and in his career he made several full recordings of his brother Nat’s “Work Song” and of my personal favorite, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”). Hidden among these tunes is a two-and-half-minute song by the name of “Island Blues.” It’s a fantastic little tune, and I apologize that I couldn’t find a recording of it online to show you, but I urge you to go buy at least this one song on the iTunes store or wherever you might find it. For such a shrimp of a song, it’s got a real kick to it, and it features a great solo by Nat Adderley AND another face-melting improv session with Cannonball. Honestly, the entire album is amazing, but this is the only song that you really NEED to listen to. Although maybe I’ve built it up too much now. Forget everything I said, the song is crap.
RIYL: Coleman Hawkins, Gil Evans, Miles Davis