What may sound like a scene from a Hollywood movie is a night that transformed Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley into a jazz saxophone legend.

The year was 1955 and he was in New York to pursue a masters in music.

One evening, Cannonball and his brother, Nat Adderley, went to the Cafe Bohemia to listen to the Oscar Pettiford group.

Nat’s account of the evening was that alto saxophonist Charlie Rouse was asked to sit in with the ensemble but didn’t bring his horn.

Oscar spied a patron with a sax case and told Charlie to borrow his. But when Rouse recognised the man as Cannonball from gigs they played in Florida, fate intervened.

According to Nat Adderley, Rouse went back and told Oscar Pettiford that Cannonball didn’t want to lend his sax and, instead, wanted to play himself.

“Well, he called him up to get rid of him and Cannonball sailed throughout the first couple of tunes, and then I went up and played, and two nights later, we had a job with that thing. Sounds like some movie stuff but that’s the way it really was.”

Dubbed ‘the new Bird’ after famed bebop player Charlie Parker, Cannonball was born in Tampa, Florida in 1928 and graduated from Florida A&M in 1948. He passed away from stroke complications in 1975 aged just 46.

Where did Cannonball Adderley’s nickname come from? Well, known for his voracious appetite, a childhood friend dubbed him “cannibal” but his accent made it sound like ‘cannonball.’

Whilst early credits with musicians such as Ray Charles and his extansive work with Miles Davis show an in-demand sideman, his own discography provides a deeper insight into a musician that was all at once serious and searching, yet full of fun and humour. 

With that in mind, here are 10 essential Cannonball Adderley albums (plus a few bonus selections!)…

Somethin’ Else (1958)

Released in 1958 on Blue Note, this hard bop classic has a star-studded lineup featuring Miles Davis, pianist Hank Jones, double bassist Sam Jones, Art Blakey on drums, and of course, Cannonball on alto sax.

What makes this album significant is that these musicians came from varied musical backgrounds that created a vibrant, colourful yet organic musical experience.

The laidback vibe and nuances of Somethin’ Else conjure images of smoky jazz clubs from the ’50s and ’60s.

Tracks like “Love For Sale” showcase Cannonball’s bebop roots with “Bird-like” improvisations.

A.B. Spellman, NPR’s Basic Jazz Record Library commentator, noted that the solo exchange between Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis on Autumn Leaves was the “kind of antiphony, that call and response that was at the very root of jazz.”

Read our full review of the album here.

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Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley (1962)

Released September 1, 1962, on Capitol Records, this album has Cannonball on alto sax, brother Nat Adderley on cornet, Sam Jones playing bass, Joe Zawinul on piano and Louis Hayes on drums.

Before you gloss over this one as ‘easy listening’ or disregard it because it’s vocal-heavy, consider this: not only was Cannonball a master on the alto sax but he was savvy at discovering talent and jazz singer Nancy Wilson was one such find.

Nancy’s lyrical voice compliments Adderley’s playing like a hand in a glove; her vibrato mimics Adderley’s when it’s wide and other times when it is as smooth as glass. She sings on seven of the twelve cuts while the remaining feature Cannonball showcasing his improvisational genius.

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Know What I Mean? (1961)

Released 1961 on Riverside Records this album featured Bill Evans on piano, Cannonball on alto saxophone, Percy Heath on bass, and Connie Kay on drums.

Imagine combining the post-bop stylings of Cannonball Adderley with the cool jazz sound of Bill Evans backed by Heath and Kay from The Modern Jazz Quartet.

Rick Anderson at All Music Review quipped, “It’s a different sort of ensemble, to be sure, and the musical results are marvelous.”

The entire album is a gem but “Waltz for Debby” is amazing: glistening arpeggios by Evans foreshadow Adderley’s masterful rendition of melody and improvisation.

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Mercy, Mercy, Mercy Live at “The Club” (1966)

This album, which was released in 1966 on Capitol Records, features the classic Cannonball Adderley Quintet, with the alto saxophonist joined on-stage by Nat Adderley, Joe Zawinul, drummer Roy McCurdy and bassist Victor Gaskin.

The album, like the musicians themselves, is full of fun, mischief and musicality.

The title track “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!” was written by Joe Zawinul (who later founded Weather Report) and encapsulates the style of ‘soul jazz’ often associated with Cannonball. The groove is deep, the tones are sultry, and the use of space by the quintet makes this a timeless gem.

The mischief comes in the title. Yes, it’s a live album but it was not recorded at The Club in Chicago but Studio A in the Capitol building. The producer set up a bar, a bandstand, dimmed the lights, and voila! Instant club!

So why the misleading title?

Julian Cannonball Adderley truly cared about others and in this case, was helping his friend who owned The Club with some shameless promotion.

Musically, this album is considered one of Cannonball’s best as it captures his bop stylings, his ‘soul jazz’ vibe with the title track, and showcases a quintet at the peak of their performance.

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The Black Messiah: Live at the Troubadour (1971)

Originally released in 1971, followed by a reissued version in 2014, the album features a lineup of Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Nat Adderley (cornet), George Duke (keyboards), Walter Becker (bass) & Roy McCurdy (drums), as well as guest appearances by jazz legends including percussionists Airto Moreira and Buck Clarke, guitarist Mike Deasy, reeds players Ernie Watts (tenor sax) and Alvin Batiste (clarinet).

Many Cannonball Adderley aficionados consider The Black Messiah Cannonball’s magnum opus.

The quintet weaves textures of bop, blues, latin, and what would later be dubbed fusion into a mosaic of sound that, to this day, is fresh and innovative.

Mike Deasy, noted Los Angeles session guitarist of The Wrecking Crew, adds the rock and blues element that tilts the album toward a modern vein.

Tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts described Cannonball as a “people person” who loved to talk with his audience to make them relax.

Cannonball reportedly said: “I give them 50% of what they want to hear and 50% of what I think they need to hear.”

You’ll not only hear Cannonball’s mastery of jazz on The Black Messiah but also his gift for storytelling between songs.

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The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco (1959)

Released in 1959, this genre-defining work of The Cannonball Adderley Quintet represents a quintessential piece of the jazz mosaic of subgenres and serves as a cornerstone for future soul jazz musicians.

Cannonball’s quintet lineup for this album was as follows: Cannonball himself on alto sax, his brother Nat Adderley on cornet, Sam Jones on bass, Bobby Timmons on piano, and Louis Hayes on drums. 

Surely one of the must-haves for passionate jazz collectors, this album not only attracted the acclaim of contemporaries, media, and critics, but also represented a pioneering work carving out modern methods of live jazz recording. 

The album recording was carried out at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco in front of a small audience.

A notable peculiarity was producer Orrin Keepnews’ decision to leave Cannonball’s interaction on the recording, a feat that was new and unusual at the time.

The Nat-Julian brotherly collaboration adds an element of alchemy that is audible in the album, whilst pianist Bobby Timmons provides an intricate harmonic background to this recording. 

The full mastery of Adderley’s quintet is on display in this album, while the live audience accompanied by Cannonball’s witty interaction between songs contributes to the overall vibe of the music.

Them Dirty Blues (1960)

Recorded in March 1960, Them Dirty Blues is made up of a collection of songs that would leave a strong impression on the jazz scene. 

A six-piece band is put together for this album, with Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), his brother Nat Adderley (cornet), Barry Harris on tracks 1–4 (piano) Bobby Timmons on tracks 5 to 9 (piano), Sam Jones (bass), and Louis Hayes (drums).

Arguably the piece that stands out in this album is ‘Work Song’ – a Nat Adderley composition that would inspire many future versions. Perhaps the most notable one came from Nina Simone in her 1963 Forbidden Fruit album. 

But the gift of Them Dirty Blues does not stop there: “Del Sasser” and “Jeannine” have also gone some way to establishing themselves as jazz standards with future generations.

Featuring similar faces that worked together on The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco just one year prior to this album, the cohesion between the musicians is on a high level, setting the foundation for searching improvisations and a tight groove. 

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Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago (1959)

Another one of Adderley’s impressive quintet albums, perhaps the highlight on this one was the exciting alto-tenor interaction with legendary saxophonist John Coltrane

But the greatness of this work is not limited to these two. 

Wynton Kelly is on the piano, while Paul Chambers (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) provide the rhythmic foundation of the quintet.

Eagle-eyed jazz fans might notice something about this line-up: the same year, they would go on to record Miles Davis’s classic “Kind of Blue” – arguably the greatest jazz album in history – with just the addition of Bill Evans on some piano duties. 

Critically acclaimed both then and now, the contrast between Coltrane’s deep searching tone on tenor versus Adderley’s alto playfulness is beautiful. 

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The Cannonball Adderley Sextet in New York (1962)

Recorded and released in 1962, this album – perhaps more than any other – showcases the full spectrum of Cannonball’s virtuosity as a saxophonist and entertainer. 

Released by the Riverside label and recorded live at the Village Vanguard, the sextet consists of Julian Adderley (Cannonball) on alto sax, Nat Adderley on cornet, Yusef Lateef on tenor saxophone, flute and – er – oboe(!), Joe Zawinul on piano, Sam Jones on bass, and Louis Hayes on drums.

Recorded in front of a small audience, this live album presents the high-energy improvisations of Nat, Yusef and Cannonball, in front of an intensely grooving rhythm section led by an on-fire Joe Zawinul on piano. 

In now-typical Adderley style, the album is enriched with spontaneous yet insightful words between tracks, and an occasional sigh or exclamation from Cannonball, who leads from the front.

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Things Are Getting Better (1959)

Recorded in October 1958, Things Are Getting Better was released in 1959 by Riverside Label.

The line-up for the recording featured Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, Wynton Kelly on piano, Milt Jackson on vibes, Art Blakey on the drums and Percy Heath on the double bass.

The nine tunes in this album offer a little something for everyone’s taste, covering everything from the laid back groove on “Serves Me Right” to the vivacious, energetic rendition of “Just One Of Those Things”, to all tempos, grooves and feelings in between.

Milt Jackson’s masterful performance on the vibraphone is perhaps what made this album so special and unique, alongside the blossoming relationship between Percy Heath and Art Blakey in the rhythm section.

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Additional Cannonball Adderley Albums

Adderley’s work throughout the decades meant that it would always be a tough job to line up a top 10 list of his best albums.

Here are a few more albums that didn’t make our top list, but are nevertheless an immense part of Cannonball’s legacy.

Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (1955)

This album is one of Adderley’s early works, as it was recorded in 1955 and is only the second album in his long and illustrious career.

Here is the long list of musicians participating in this album: 

  • Cannonball Adderley  on alto sax
  •  Nat Adderley on cornet
  • Jerome Richardson on flute and tenor sax
  • J. J. Johnson on trombone
  • Cecil Payne on baritone sax
  • John Williams on piano
  • Jimmy Cleveland on trombone
  • Paul Chambers on bass
  • Max Roach on drums
  • Kenny Clarke on drums
  • Quincy Jones in the role of arranger

Country Preacher (1969)

Country Preacher is another live album project. Cannonball again opted for the quintet format for this project. 

The quintet consisted of some familiar, and some new faces. Interestingly, this album was recorded at a church in Chicago, making a strong symbolism between the album title and the location of the recording. 

Cannonball Adderley on alto and soprano sax is joined by Roy McCurdy on drums, Nat Adderley on cornet (and vocals on the track “Oh Babe”), Joe Zawinul on keys, and Walter Booker on bass.

Cannonball Adderley – Big Man: The Legend of John Henry (1975)

Cannonball’s last ever work was the soundtrack for a musical play based on American folk legend – John Henry. 

Arguably one of his most experimental, avant-garde and ambitious undertaking, it will certainly remain an inspiration for generations to come.

This recording features Cannonball’s quintet, accompanied by a large jazz orchestra.

The Cannonball Adderley Quintet at the Lighthouse (1960)

Another one of Cannonball’s live albums, this is yet another great addition to his inspiring discography. 

Recorded at the Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach, California, you can hear the small but enthusiastic audience who got to join Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Victor Feldman on piano, Nat Adderley on cornet, Louis Hayes on drums, and Sam Jones on bass.

Thanks for reading and we hope you’ve been inspired to go back and listen to some of the great Cannonball Adderley albums that are out there.

If you have other favourites which you think we should have included, feel free to use the comments section here.

And, if you’re after some more saxophone-focused articles, check out this profile of some of the great modern day jazz sax players.

If you’re learning saxophone and are interested in how the jazz greats – including Cannonball Adderley – set up their saxophones, you might like our guides to the best jazz reeds (Cannonball used a 2!), the best jazz mouthpieces (Cannonball used a Meyer!) and the best jazz saxophones (he went from a King to a Selmer Mark VI).

Discover Jazz
Discover Jazz

The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!