It all started in an empty grocery store on a late weekday evening. I don’t know whose version of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” came on, but it was smooth, and not in the complimentary “this scotch is so smooth” way, but in the Kenny G “smooth” jazz way. That meant as soon as I got to the car I had to pull up the Cannonball Adderley Quintet version off of Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (Live at “the Club”). It’s a classic, and you get wisdom from Cannonball himself in the intro:
You know, sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity. When it happens sometimes, we’re caught short. We don’t know exactly how to handle it when it comes up. Sometimes, we don’t know just what to do when adversity takes over. And I have advice for all of us, I got it from my pianist Joe Zawinul who wrote this tune. And it sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have that kind of problem. It’s called Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.
While that was plenty hip for 1966, it reminded me of the time Vast Aire and Atoms Family sampled the intro for “Adversity Strikes” from the late 1990s too (and further down the rabbit hole we go). It’s a very related, but very different take on the same feeling – all linked by Cannonball’s spoken intro.
While Cannonball and Zawinul took us to church with that slow-building groove and the feeling of redemption we get from submission to the spirit, Vast goes straight for the chaos of the universe (or 80s/90s NYC), offering no redemption except the defiant act of living in the face of death. Vast finds his only solace, or mercy, in his own music and musical influences. Here’s a piece of the first verse (and damn, that Biggie reference is still phenomenal):
I want to live a long life
I don’t want to disappear with the sunrays when they fall over the mountain
So until then, life maintains
Calluses, the adamantium nutshell frame
This shit ain’t cotton-candy, ponies
The alarm sounds
I wake up in an ebony, mahogany, poverty-stricken
By the lightning rods that came from grey clouds with a silver lining
Sparsely painted, outlined even, but purposely tainted
So I can misread the guidelines of the sky’s limit
On the sidelines in small print written in bluish tint
I think hard
Like Christopher Wallace with a cheeseburger on his mind in his last minutes
Damn, you gotta excuse my French
Sometimes I speak in kissing swords but I don’t know how to fence
So when adversity strikes, even when we don’t know what to do, even when we wake up from a bad dream and find ourselves in a miserable reality, even when our masters – who have seemed to transcend their reality yet still can’t truly escape but through death, we have to remember the feeling that Joe Zawinul so perfectly set to music.
It never deserved a smooth jazz version. “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” is a deep and profound song about living life, no matter how hard adversity strikes.