Cannonball Adderley

Big Man: The Legend of John Henry

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Big Man: The Legend of John Henry is the final album the 46-year-old Cannonball Adderley completed before his death from a stroke in 1975. It is also his most ambitious musical project, and given his catalog -- Soul Zodiac, Soul of the Bible, etc. -- that's saying something. This "folk musical" was composed by the great altoist with his brother Nat; the libretto was written by Diane Lampert and Peter Farrow. The Adderleys employed a full jazz orchestra, chorus, strings, a rhythm section, and singing actors -- including Robert Guillaume. The story uses the American folk myth of the 98-foot-tall man who took on the machine and beat it, but couldn't stop it and won by losing. He is resurrected here as a metaphorical African-American Jesus. The legend is told symbolically rather than literally, refracted through the lens of the Civil Rights struggle, of which the Adderleys were a vocal part. The lead role is played and sung with soulful aplomb by the great Joe Williams. This date also marks the recorded debut of vocalist Randy Crawford (who was a mere 21 at the time) as Carolina. The jazz band features Cannonball's quintet -- including George Duke, under the pseudonym Dawilli Gonga -- and the album was produced by David Axelrod. The orchestra contains many heavy hitters including Don Menza, Oscar Brashear, and George Bohannon. The music weds Cannonball's love of jazz, soul, and funk together with his and Nat's large-group harmonic ideas, and their love of folk songs, Caribbean and Brazilian rhythms, blues, and gospel. For jazz fans in 1975, it sounded like a mess -- it is not a jazz record per se, but a work of musical theater that employs it to serve an end. "Poundin'" has a righteous electric bassline by Carol Kaye and Rhodes piano grooves by Duke, and the strings and horns buoy Williams, who walks the line between militant soul and new school gospel. (The track was sampled by Dr. Dre for "Bar One" on Chronic 2001). "Anybody Need a Big Man," with its collision of squalling percussion (Airto Moreira), crackling Rhodes, strolling bass, strings, and Williams' lead vocal, cruises atop samba and funk grooves. Crawford imbues "Jesus Where Are You Now" with spacy, sophisticated soul; it is timeless in its poignant beauty. Fans of Cannonball's alto playing may be disappointed because his horn doesn't make an appearance until the final quarter of the recording, and then only briefly. But his soloing isn't the point of this in-your-face-and-heart meld of musical and metaphorical ideas. To that end, Big Man: The Legend of John Henry works. The unfettered ambition on offer here was wasted on a conservative '70s jazz audience. In the 21st century, this work is a revelation -- even if its execution is sometimes flawed by an unwillingness to edit -- and an essential part of the Adderley brothers' legacy.

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