Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Or Why It’s All in the Groove #Write52/13


Any music fan will tell you that nothing beats the intensity and emotional charge of listening to live music. After all, before the good Mr Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, what else were we to do?

There’s a primal element to this. The story of music is the story of human evolution. Music and language reflect our social origins. Both evolved out of the need for early humans to communicate with other members of their group, bond with each other and forge a sense of common identity.

Crucially, music helps us convey emotion. As the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau recognised, music originated in a primordial “language of passions.”   

I’ve been to some stunning gigs over the years. And live performances offer a sense of authenticity that recordings can never match. At its best, musicians and audiences combine to create a powerful emotional connection as they inhabit the same physical space and collaborate to produce that special thing unfolding in front of them.  

Listening to a recording of a live performance can be the next thing. It’s virtually impossible to capture the full energy of a live concert on record. But you can get damn close. Sadly, the magic doesn’t always survive the recording process. The signal compression that characterises modern recording formats means that music is squashed into a narrow dynamic range that affects its quality. Or the recording engineer may simply have had a bad day.

But you can’t deny the simple brilliance of something like “Sweet Jane” on 1969: Velvet Underground Live With Lou Reed. Or the profound meditative quality of Keith Jarrett’s improvisation on The Köln Concert.  

But let’s be honest. Some live recordings should never have seen the light of day. No names, no pack drill!

Curiously, one of my favourite live recordings isn’t, strictly speaking, a ‘live’ performance at all. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at "The Club", released by The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in 1966 was recorded in front of an invited audience at Capitol's Hollywood studio. Not, as the title and original liner notes suggested, at the Chicago-based The Club. Owned by a friend of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, this was a stunt to give The Club some free publicity.

But the crowd, fuelled, no doubt, by a free bar and the exuberant performance give every indication of really digging the show. By the mid-'60s, the Adderley Quintet were occupying a solid soul-jazz groove. And it shows in every track.

One of the great alto saxophonists, Cannonball Adderley’s hard-swinging, bluesy bop matches the material perfectly. And pianist Joe Zawinul's laid-back, funky masterpiece "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" is a stand-out classic. Which became a Top 40 hit to boot. Cornetist Nat Adderley contributes two swinging originals with "Fun" and "Games".  The leader's two compositions – the fast and furious "Sticks" and the bluesy "Sack O' Woe" – show the band really cooking. While Zawinul's second piece, "Hippodelphia" offers a more reflective mood that showcases the tight playing of the quintet.

We make music because that’s what people do. It’s essential to the development of human sociability. Watching a band play live for the sheer joy of doing it is an experience to treasure. Back in the mists of time, Plato said, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination.” Listening to the propulsive hard bop vibe of The Cannonball Adderley Quintet on Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, you know that you’re in the presence of something special.