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When saxophonist Richie Cole, who brought the phrase “alto madness” into the jazz vernacular in the 1970s and ’80s, was starting his career, he had the serendipitous good fortune to run into his idol, Cannonball Adderley. The legendary saxman invited the upstart to hang with his band. Years later, during another chance encounter, Adderley not only remembered Cole but asked, “How’s the sax coming?” Forty-three years after Adderley’s untimely death and 42 years into his own recording career, Cole delivers a powerful answer to that question with the release of Cannonball, an emotionally charged and wonderfully imaginative tribute album for the ages.
Cole has recorded jazz interpretations of gospel, Latin, Broadway and other styles of music over the years, but he was initially nervous about tackling Adderley’s songbook. He overcame his trepidation in winning fashion, approaching every tune with reverence while envisioning — with the plucky assistance of bassist/producer Mark Perna, trombonist Reggie Watkins and a few other able hands — how these classics might have evolved had Cannonball lived longer.
An excellent case in point is “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” a brisk, freely swinging romp that, rhythmically, is worlds away from the slow-building soul-jazz arrangement heard so often before. Another is the bop classic “Dat Dere,” on which Watkins’ coolly swaying solo is followed by a richly textured blast of big-band energy. Sometimes Cole plays it closer to the vest, as on the rumbling “Toy,” whose buoyant solo matches Adderley’s note for note.
Expected — but still inventively rendered — inclusions like “Del Sasser, “Sack of Woe,” “Stars Fell on Alabama” and “Save Your Love For Me” (on which fellow Pittsburgher Kenia sings in Portuguese over Cole’s bossa nova arrangement) are complemented by Cole’s swinging original tune “Bell of the Ball” and less obvious choices, most notably a raucously jamming “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” from Fiddler on the Roof. - Jonathan Widran