Graded on a Curve: Cannonball Adderley, Somethin’ Else

Blue Note Records is celebrating 75 years of existence by giving numerous key titles from their incomparable catalog high-quality vinyl reissues, and it’s fitting that we begin our tribute to the label’s longevity with a look at one of their very finest releases, the great alto saxophonist Julian Cannonball Adderley’s 1958 masterwork Somethin’ Else.

The LPs of Blue Note’s classic-era are aptly described as an embarrassment of riches. Along with loads of amazing music, there is of course the surrounding context, and engaging with the fruits of the imprint’s labors offers a truly enlightening historical narrative. Naturally, it’s only part of jazz’s larger story, but it’s also a highly valuable component since Blue Note is an example where respect for the music trumped pure capitalistic desire.

That respect extended to the amount of studio time given to the musicians, but it also concerned other vital aspects of record production, beginning with the use of engineer Rudy Van Gelder and ending with the company’s justly celebrated graphic design. Blue Note didn’t have the market cornered on either the Van Gelder touch or the manufacturing of handsome album jackets, for it really was a fantastic era in terms of both fidelity and sharply conceived presentation, but throughout the salad days of Modern Jazz (and for a good while afterward) the label was at the forefront.

Somethin’ Else is one of many excellent Van Gelder jobs, but some may evaluate its sleeve as solid but not spectacular. Please allow me to disagree. While I don’t think it’s one of the very greatest of Blue Note covers, it is nicely pared down to only essential information and is a fine model of strong but subtle construction; obviously the large black space, but also the contrast with the white lettering, and then the font, bold type that possesses just a hint of distinctiveness. Add the further contrasting element of color, with green for the leader and blue for his band.

Those names are all renowned figures in the world of jazz, some at the time of this recording and others through subsequent career activity and the eventual canonization of this LP. In 1958 the most famous participant was easily Miles Davis (Leonard Feather’s original liner notes treat him with the reverence awarded to legendary talent), and his appearance here as a sideman continues to play a role in Somethin’ Else’s enduring mystique.

The scoop is pretty simple, though. After Adderley joined Davis’ Sextet in ’57, shortly prior to the return of John Coltrane to the trumpeter’s group (anybody who has dropped needle or pressed play on copies of the absolutely mandatory Milestones or Kind of Blue is already familiar with Cannonball’s alto), his new employer agreed to participate in this session (with the permission of Davis’ label Columbia). This situation produced the saxophonist’s only album for Blue Note as leader.

A nice gesture on Davis’ part to be sure, but please consider that upon offer to join the Sextet, Adderley promptly chose to break-up his own Quintet. This might seem like an intense reaction, but even though he’d already cut a few LPs as a leader, debuting with Presenting Cannonball Adderley for Savoy in ’55 and recording further for EmArcy and Mercury, his early forays into the scene weren’t commercially successful.

Adderley’s emergence on the ’50’s scene is now rather storied, coming via an unplanned 1955 fill-in for an absent Jerome Richardson in bassist Oscar Pettiford’s group at the New York City club The Café Bohemia. Before visiting NYC he’d been a music teacher in Tallahassee FL, though he and his cornetist brother Nat reportedly backed up Ray Charles when the groundbreaking singer-pianist was living in Tallahassee in the 1940s.

Post-Pettiford gig, Adderley wasted no time in hitting the studio, commencing his massive discography beside Nat in June of ’55 on drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke’s Bohemia After Dark. His inaugural leader date came the next month and along with the EmArcy and Mercury material, additional backing followed including Introducing Nat Adderley and LPs behind vocalists Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington.

Even if Cannonball’s first quintet had found immediate success, it’s still likely he would’ve disbanded it for Davis anyway; as an alto player of the post-bop ‘50s, Adderley was heavily influenced by Charlie Parker, and the chance to work with one of Bird’s key musical cohorts was surely impossible to resist. Also, the fact that Adderley was far more than a Parker clone no doubt endeared him to the notoriously fastidious Davis.

Miles was quite generous in his praise of the session’s pianist Hank Jones as well. Older brother to drummer Elvin and trumpeter Thad, Hank is a worthy candidate for the title of Quintessential Mainstream Modern Jazzman. A Midwest guy, he first hit New York stages in ’44 with the band of swing trumpeter Hot Lips Page.

From there he recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, became a mainstay of Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic shows (concerts that were basically the prototype for the long-serving Jazz at Lincoln Center experience), worked in the bands of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, took a job with CBS Studios that lasted for years, accompanied Marilyn Monroe’s serenading of John F. Kennedy, and toward the end of his career played extensively with The Great Jazz Trio.

There are an unwieldy number of platters with Jones’ name on the front, but I’ve always gravitated to the early stuff for Savoy (for a significant period he was essentially the imprint’s house pianist) such as the ’56 LPs Have You Met Hank Jones?, a nifty solo piano disc, and Quartet-Quintet featuring drummer Clarke, the dual trumpets of Donald Byrd and the very obscure Matty Dice, and bassist Eddie Jones, who was no relation.

For that matter, Somethin’ Else’s bassist wasn’t blood kin either. From ’59 to ’65 Sam Jones was a member of Cannonball’s second far more successful quintet, though he started out with the jump bandleader Tiny Bradshaw and played in the ‘50s with pianist Thelonious Monk and trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Dorham. He was also a highly regarded jazz cellist, and the profile achieved by Adderley’s group definitely assisted in Riverside issuing Sam’s three very interesting early-‘60s LPs, Soul Society, The Chant, and Down Home.

Even at this late date, Art Blakey perseveres as one of the most influential of all jazz drummers. At the time of this recording, he’d already been leading the post-Horace Silver Jazz Messengers for two years, but as an extremely accomplished rhythm-man he was constantly in demand for sideman work, and this session is arguably his very greatest (why it’s arguable; Vols. 1 and 2 of Monk’s Genius of Modern Music and Vols. 1 and 2 of The Prophetic Herbie Nichols, all four issued by Blue Note).

While this is clearly Adderley’s date, Davis’ level of influence on the proceedings has been well documented. He apparently picked the songs, with the title track being his own composition, and furthermore Miles is the first horn heard on the opener, a lengthy sophisticating of the standard “Autumn Leaves.” The Joseph Kosma/Jacques Prévert piece was only 13 years old at the time of this recording (Johnny Mercer’s English lyrics date from ’47), and to this point it was certainly the most advanced treatment the tune had received.

If Davis’ trumpet arrives before Adderley’s alto, the dominant voice, at least initially, is Hank Jones. For nearly a minute the pianist lays down a snaky almost Exotica-tinged line in cahoots with the sure-fingered bassist as midway through Davis spikes the environment with a concise fanfare. Then the mood shifts and hints of the song’s origin emerge. Davis delivers a brief expert solo and then cedes the spotlight to Cannonball.

Those who prefer tougher hard-bop atmospheres might complain that Davis’ spare playing style is just too impactful on a slab belonging to a sax player of such bluesy, funky persuasion. That’s a fair comment, but if one wants to hear Cannonball goin’ off there are easily 50 records out there that will do the trick. However, if one desires to get immersed in Adderley trading ideas with some of the richest straight-ahead players in jazz history while he establishes his voice in a crowded field, then Somethin’ Else is destination one.

This shouldn’t suggest that Adderley’s soloing is anything less than stunning; he weaves thoughtfully throughout “Autumn Leaves” and his improvising in the middle of the Cole Porter chestnut “Love for Sale” is fleet yet weighty with aggressively dynamic turns. He’s bookended by short statements from Davis that only deepen the ambiance.

Side two opens with the title track, and while it’s Davis’ tune the structure is really geared to Adderley’s strengths. Delivered as a post-bop tour de force, in the opening seconds the horns playfully bicker back and forth and from there the whole band just rolls. Davis’ blowing is fiery, though any doubts over the album’s leader are answered in the saxophonist’s solo. Five minutes in and Adderley and Davis again engage in rich dialogue, then quickly step back to make room for some succinct expressiveness from the pianist.

The Nat Adderley tune “One for Daddy-O,” a tribute to Chicago’s rhyming hepcat disc jockey Holmes “Daddy-O” Daylie, is a finely rendered blues, so partisans of in-the-pocket groove need not worry. And as strongly as Cannonball and Miles acquit themselves across its eight minutes and change, it is here that the rhythm section shines, with Jones’ bass huge but limber and Blakey’s kit-work oozing erudition without ever faltering into the sophisto.

The smoldering balladry of “Dancing in the Dark” closes the LP. Another standard, this one written by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz for the ’31 musical The Band Wagon (it also figures in Vincente Minnelli’s classic ’53 film version), it’s the shortest number on the disc, and in a lesser scenario one could get the idea that it was tacked on just to fill space.

But in this case it actually proves crucial in highlighting Adderley’s brilliance and pinpointing Somethin’ Else as his record. For the cut, Davis lays-out completely and the saxophonist improvises with aplomb through the entirety of the tune. CD and download versions of this release have added “Bangoon;” while that hard-trucking Hank Jones piece (originally titled “Allison’s Uncle” in reference to the birth of Nat’s daughter) is undoubtedly of interest to those maintaining digital libraries, “Dancing in the Dark” serves as a proper, exquisite ending.

As said, Adderley’s regrouped Quintet was something of a hit, and his Riverside era (’59-’63) provides consistently rewarding listening. Post Riverside’s collapse, Cannonball signed to Capitol and headed in an increasingly commercial soul-jazz direction. In fact, some know him for “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” his ’66 hit reading of a composition by his bandmate Joe Zawinul.

Due to its status as a cornerstone document in jazz studies, many will argue that Cannonball Adderley’s standout moment is ‘59’s Kind of Blue. But in terms of the saxophonist’s talent as heard through the prism of his own personality, this LP easily lives up to its title. To borrow a similar turn of phrase, Somethin’ Else is really where it’s at.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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