Cannonball Adderley rose to fame as a Miles Davis sideman, but in his cool period. Later, the affable saxist had his own successes with a series of soul jazz releases. In both cases, it was easy enough to peg him as the mainstream lightweight, in particular with the eruptive John Coltrane occupying the other reed chair on albums like 1959’s Kind of Blue.
Black Messiah, recorded at the Troubadour in 1970 and released two years later, make clear how different Adderley was on the bandstand, versus in the public perception. Faced with the departure of Joe Zawinul, whose electric piano had powered earlier groove-bomb delights like “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and “Walk Tall,” Adderley raced further out to the edge with George Duke — who was, despite Zawinul’s new gig with Weather Report, even more inclined to experiment with the looming electronic-based wave of jazz rock after a then-recent stint with Frank Zappa.
That suited the suddenly restless Adderley perfectly.
They combined to create something that was, then as now, a fascinating — if oddly overlooked — double album, with Adderley utterly laying waste to a number of preconceived notions alongside fellow Davis alum Airto Moreira, Mike Deasy, Ernie Watts, Alvin Batiste and brother Nat Adderley. Walter Booker and Roy McCurdy attempted to hold things down, even as Cannonball dabbled in Brazilian spices, rock ‘n’ roll attitude and something off toward the edge of the Milky Way.
Of course, Adderley’s approachable way at the mic remained in tact, even as he pushed at the envelop of his own muse. Referring to the growing number of collaborators suddenly sharing that West Hollywood stage, he joked: “Now I don’t give a damn whether you can count or not, we still are the Cannonball Adderley Quintet!” And they could still get completely underneath something like the Herbie Hancock tribute “Dr. Honouris Cousa.” But listen as Cannonball he puts his foot firmly on the pedal for turbulent fusion of “The Chocolate Nuisance.” It’s like a previously unheard outtake from Bitches Brew, but far, far more funky.
The Deasy feature “Little Benny Hen” indulges in a randy rock attitude, while the title track probably brought a twinkle to the eye of Duke’s old boss. “Eye of the Cosmos” is something else entirely, maybe as out there as Adderley ever got, but then he swerves back into the mainstream melodicism of “Pretty Paul.” The foundation was still there, though Cannonball spent the bulk of Black Messiah — seeing reissue via Real Gone Music and Universal Music Special Markets, with remastering by Maria Triana — desperately trying to loose himself from its gravitational pull.
Recorded during the same concert that produced 1976’s posthumous Music, You All, this project represents one of the more successful collaborations with Adderley’s late-period producer David Axelrod — who also oversaw the unfortunately dated Love, Sex, and the Zodiac, and did his own Rock Interpretation of Handel’s Messiah with an assist from Adderley.
That’s because it showcases both sides of the Adderley coin — the one you’ve always known, and the one most people have never quite come to terms with. Duke went back to Zappa, while Moriera ultimately joined Zawinul in Weather Report. That alone tells you a lot about what Cannonball — who’d die of a stroke in 1975 — was journeying toward here. The music, frisky and free, tells you the rest.