In his new notes to accompany the Keepnews Collection reissue of Nat Adderley’s Work Song, producer Orrin Keepnews notes that there was a compressed time frame involved in recording guitarist Wes Montgomery’s second Riverside LP, flying out to San Francisco to record Cannonball Adderley’s quintet in live performance, and recording the Work Song sessions a couple of months later. It didn’t hurt, though, that Montgomery was going to appear on the Adderley album as well as his own, and that Bobby Timmons, Louis Haynes, and Sam Jones also appeared on Cannonball’s recording, along with Nat. To say that Riverside was up to its ears in talented young jazz musicians at this time is an understatement.
It has mystified many jazz fans and listeners that Nat Adderley did not become a bigger star in the jazz firmament than he did. Part of this is attributable to the shadow of his older brother, Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley. Nat contributed both his excellent playing and his compositions to his brother’s quintet, but the older Adderley brother had an uncanny way of being able to talk to and connect with audiences who were not always hardcore jazz aficionados.
Work Song is often considered to be Nat Adderley’s finest recording, and it’s hard to argue, given the excellent original compositions, the beautiful readings of a few standards and the level of performance by Adderley and Montgomery. Bobby Timmons also sounds great here, digging in with his soul and gospel-influenced piano. There are several tracks without Timmons, and we are reminded that he was suffering from substance abuse issues at the time, but listening to this album, you’d hardly know it.
Sam Jones plays pizzicato cello on several tracks, and while this might sound like a mere novelty, it is a very effective sound, particularly the way it’s paired with Montgomery’s guitar. On the title track and again on the very next track, Timmons’ composition “Pretty Memory” the cello and guitar are paired in the way a horn line would normally work, providing punchy exclamation points to what the soloist is playing.
Certainly, it is apparent here, as it must have been to those who listened to Wes Montgomery’s first two Riverside albums, that one is in the presence of greatness—in this case, a guitarist who completely set the standard for jazz guitarists for at least the next two decades. He solos frequently, and on those tunes where Timmons lays out—“Mean to Me,” “Violets for Your Furs,” “Mean to Me,” “My Heart Stood Still,” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” he proves to be an expert accompanist as well, supporting Adderley without stepping on him in any way.
Adderley’s playing is inspired throughout, and his cornet sounds simply gorgeous. One minute he’s producing the full, rich tone of Clark Terry, the next he’s reminding listeners of the melancholic tone and spacious playing of Miles Davis. In the sense that Adderley composed many of the best-known soul jazz numbers and could play as well as any trumpet or cornet player on the scene at the time, his career never hit the heights that Cannonball’s did. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it clearly was a source of frustration for Keepnews and other folks at Riverside as well.
Listening to the remastered version of this classic album, it is apparent that some kind of reappraisal of Nat’s work is in order because Work Song is one album that has stood the test of time, sounding just as fresh and immediate today as it did when it was released some four decades ago.