David Axelrod: Soul on The Edge

by Marshall Bowden

Read about the compilation David Axelrod/The Edge

David Axelrod

David Axelrod’s first work as a producer was on tenor saxophonist Harold Land’s The Fox, an album that demonstrated what a marvelous musician Land was as well as putting the world on notice that West coast jazz musicians could play hard-edged bop with the best of the East.

On his 2001 recording, a CD for the Mo’ Wax label entitled David Axelrod, there is a tribute to the tenor man entitled “For Land’s Sake”. It’s just a small example of the way all of the music of David Axelrod has been profoundly influenced by the jazz and soul sounds he grew up hearing in his native Los Angeles.A few years later, Axelrod was at Capitol Records, a label at the apex of its creative powers, as a producer and A&R man. There he worked with Lou Rawls, writing and producing the singer’s big hit “Dead End Street”. He helped create a distinctive sound for Rawls, and it turned out to be one that he would stick with and expand upon throughout his career.

Julian “Cannonball” Adderley was the other act that Axelrod worked with extensively during his time at Capitol. Adderley was the most successful jazz artist of the ’60s, after the Ramsey Lewis Trio, to cross over into the pop charts, though he was not able to do so with the kind of regularity of Lewis. Adderley’s agenda was rather different as well: he played straightforward bop as well as soul and R&B-tinged jazz.

Adderley’s best-selling album, 1967’s Mercy Mercy Mercy: Live At the Club, starts with a boppish Nat Adderley composition, “Fun”, but quickly gets into the same backbeat-and-blues territory as the Ramsey Lewis Trio with another Nat Adderley composition entitled “Games”. Adderley demonstrates his unique ability to play Bird-like runs while maintaining a down-to-earth blues sound that gets the crowd excited in the same manner as Lewis’ “‘In’ Crowd”.

The real killer track, though, is Josef Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”. The song does just what Lewis had been doing, incorporating a bluesy melody, albeit at a slower tempo, with the slinky sound of the Fender Rhodes electric piano and a gospel-style groove. In fact, the song starts with Cannonball himself testifying to the power of music:

“You know” he intones, “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'”.

By now the audience is ravenous and they eagerly spur the group and Zawinul, who plays the only real solo of the tune, on. The track was a gigantic hit, and won the group a Grammy for Best Instrumental Performance of 1967. Other strong tunes followed, including “74 Miles Away”, “Walk Tall”, and “Country Preacher”.

Live at the Club was produced by Axelrod, who Adderley had requested as a producer upon signing with Capitol Records. Axelrod turned Adderley on to some of the music he’d been listening to: Amos Milburn, Lowell Fulson, and Roy Milton. Unfortunately there was no Black Music Division at Capitol and they really didn’t know what to do with the kinds of sounds Axelrod was creating with Rawls and Adderley, so he was given rock band The Electric Prunes to produce, with predictably bizarre results.

Actually, the music that Axelrod wrote for the Prunes album was so advanced that the band, hardly one of the great musical outfits in the history of recorded music, couldn’t play it. They were turned into spectators on their own album as Axelrod brought in studio musicians to play the elaborate parts he had scored.

In 1968 and 1969 Axelrod released two albums under his own name that drew their inspiration from the work of mystic poet William Blake, Shttps://amzn.to/2DGlRYSongs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. These works, plus his 1970 album Earth Rot, an environmentalist opus warning of the dangers of taking the planet for granted, were sampled extensively by hip-hop and electronica producers impressed with the booming, spacey sounds of his string, bass, and guitar arrangements.

Through the ’70s he released a series of interesting albums, some with Cannonball Adderley as producer: The Auction, Heavy Axe, and a rock interpretation of Handel’s Messiah. He also worked on additional Adderley albums until the saxophonist passed away in 1975.

Axelrod continued to produce music through the ’70s and much of it has been sampled by contemporary artists such as DJ Shadow and Lauryn Hill (her “Every Ghetto, Every City” made use of an arrangement of Axelrod’s “Tony Poem” from his Strange Ladies album.) Fortunately, much of his essential work has been made available on the compilation Anthology 1967-’70 and his late sixties albums are available as imports. He laid low through the ’80s following his son’s untimely death, but in the early ’90s he was back with his Requiem; Holocaust, a moving and haunting evocation of the Holocaust.

In 2001 Axelrod released David Axelrod, which utilizes rhythm tracks originally recorded for a proposed third Electric Prunes album. To these tracks he added new arrangements and worked with many of the studio greats who contributed to his past albums. He also worked with new artists such as L.A. rapper Ras Kass. Besides the tribute to Harold Land there are also nods to DJ Shadow (“The Shadow Knows”) and the president of jazz label Fantasy Records (“Fantasy for Ralph”). 

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