There’s something about the melodies of the great hard bop tunes — they unfurl with a certain sonic poetry. They’re taut and neat, the ledgers of ragged syncopations all balanced out. Every repetition feels necessary, every variation opens up a new universe of possibilities, every chord change is the exact right movement. Think “Moment’s Notice,” or “Recorda Me,” or “Along Came Betty,” or “Sister Sadie,” or “Minority,” or “Three in One.” You want to hum them as you walk down the street, each two-bar phrase a succinct magnificence, and when you do, you find you have to account for the drum hits and jabbing piano fills, too.
“Work Song,” written by Nat Adderley, is one of those pieces. The whole tune is a simple thing, little more than a call-and-response riff, but there’s an infinity of pathos packed into it. It’s mournfulness and deliverance and celebration in an economical little bundle. And that’s before the blowing starts.
The performance here comes from the television program Jazz Scene U.S.A., hosted by vocalist and songwriter Oscar Brown Jr. Nat is the cornet player, seen here in the band led by his brother, alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. The YouTube uploader notes a personnel listing of Joe Zawinul on piano, Sam Jones on bass and Louis Hayes on drums. You also see Yusef Lateef on stage (tenor sax), though he’s not featured on this one.
I thought about “Work Song” prompted by Labor Day, a U.S. national holiday. But as with many things in jazz, things aren’t exactly what they seem. Nat Adderley says the piece was inspired by the chain gangs he saw as a kid in Florida — specifically their chants. The lyrics Cannonball discusses in this clip begin, “Breaking rocks out here on the chain gang…” Prison labor isn’t quite the spirit of the holiday.
It’s the sort of thing that … well, let’s say this. If someone were to ask you what the blues is, you could explain the basic 12-bar structure and illustrate the difference between I, IV and V chords, along with a gloss on what gives the blues scale its distinctive character. Or you could tell them the story of this tune.