First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2008, Volume 15, #11
Written by John Metzger
Sat November 8, 2008, 11:15 AM CST
There always will be terrific albums that follow a traditional framework. The biggest leaps forward, however, happen whenever an artist takes a risk, and often, no one knows quite what the outcome will be. Naturally, not every attempt at bending an established style in a new direction will work, but sometimes these assaults on convention can ignite a career. Such is the case with Nat Adderley’s 1960 set Work Song. The endeavor not only thrust the cornetist and bandleader out of the shadow of his saxophone-playing, older brother Cannonball, but it also helped to elevate the profile of up-and-coming guitarist Wes Montgomery.
The most unusual aspect about Work Song is the composition of the band that Adderley employed. On several tracks, he is accompanied only by bass and electric guitar. On others, drums, piano, and cello complete his ensemble. It’s a strange assortment of instrumentation, to say the least, but it works remarkably well. Both Sam Jones and Keter Betts alternate between playing bass and cello, and given that the cello accompaniments are plucked rather than bowed, their lyrical leads counter the rhythmic drive of the underlying bass patterns. Elsewhere, on a cover of George Gershwin’s I’ve Got a Crush on You, the sound of Montgomery’s guitar is used to frame Adderley’s cornet solos much as a piano would in a more traditional jazz trio.
Beginning in 1960, the jazz world entered an extensive period of innovation. The hard-bop style that Miles Davis had applied to timeless standards and newer compositions on albums like Cookin’ and Steamin’ began to splinter and mutate. Inspired by Horace Silver, soul jazz emerged, and by the end of the decade, fusion would be born. There’s no doubt that Adderley saw what was happening, and it is quite fascinating to hear how definitively Work Song captures the many changes that were taking place within the jazz oeuvre.
Save for the instrumentation that adorns it, the briskly paced Fallout, for example, wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the repertoire of Davis’ first great quintet, and Mean to Me, which precedes it, contains a laid-back ambience over which Adderley’s biting cornet lines are pitted against the fluttering gracefulness of Montgomery’s guitar. The burbling rhythms that repeatedly rise to the surface of Pretty Memory provide an early indication of the direction that Davis would take during the latter part of the decade. Work Song, which undoubtedly is Adderley’s best-known tune, boasts a funky groove as well as a melody that, at key moments, bears a striking resemblance to Simon & Garfunkel’s later-penned We’ve Got a Groovey Thing Goin’.
Throughout Work Song, Adderley and his band are completely connected. Melodies are tossed with ease from musician to musician, and the rhythm section keeps the mood light and loose, though it also isn’t afraid to turn up the intensity precisely when it’s absolutely needed. Adderley often worked as a sideman in his brother Cannonball’s band, but, here, he clearly is in complete control. There’s a prickly edge to his playing, and his solos slice with surgical precision through the lilting cadences supplied by his outfit, which spurs the rest of his ensemble to even greater heights. Over the course of his career, Adderley made a number of hit-and-miss endeavors, but there’s a reason why Work Song is considered his finest outing: He’s confident and mature, yet he still possesses the exuberance of youth.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box