Cannonball Adderley’s life was short as he died at the age of 46 during 1975. His life was also prolific as he released close to 50 albums during the last 20 years of his life but his last release during his lifetime was the most unique.
Adderley is remembered as a jazz saxophone icon. He was a bop or hard bop jazz musician for most of his career but as time passed he fused elements of soul, jazz, and blues into his sound with varying degrees of success.
His last project was a musical based on the folk legend John Henry. His vision was brought to fruition when he recruited songwriters Diane Lambert and Peter Farrow to provide the lyrics and his brother Nat to help out with the music. Legendary singer Joe Williams and a young Randy Crawford were the lead vocalists and Robert Guillaume provided most of the dialogue. The album was a commercial failure and has never been released on CD until now. Adderley performed the music from the musical with his quintet a few times before his death.
Big Man: The Legend Of John Henry is an album rooted in its time. The Civil Rights movement was in full flower and the story hooked into that time period. The dialogue mixed in with the music make it an album that needs to be listened to in its entirety. Adderley rarely created music with words, which means he traveled outside his comfort zone.
While traces of Adderley’s jazz orientation can be heard in the music, it is basically an album of folk and pop music. Joe Williams was one of the great voices of his generation and is able to adapt to the tenor of the music. Crawford would go on to a long career as a solo artist but here, at 21, she is in her recording debut and is a little tentative.
Adderley created a musical that embraced the era, if not his usual musical style. Today, it is more of a historical piece that explores a rarely seen side of jazz great Cannonball Adderley.