David Axelrod stands as one of a handful of record producers who created a sound that, regardless of the artist with whom he was working, was recognizable as an Axelrod production. Phil Spector possessed a similar ability, as did Willie Mitchell. But Axelrod specialized in a gritty yet elegant sound that owed a great deal to the black urban experience.
The Edge: David Axelrod at Capitol DRecords 1966–1970 collects some of Axelrod’s production work as well as a selection of tracks from his own albums. Although you’ll have to hit the crates to find a number of Axelrod’s releases, this is a decent introductory CD.
Deeply cinematic, full of the reality of the blues and contemporary R&B yet overlaid with a grandeur that helped it rise above its urban roots, it is a sound that many hip-hop producers have found completely irresistible. One can hardly listen to any hip-hop productions without hearing samples of Axelrod’s work.
And Axelrod was most comfortable, when not working on his own projects, collaborating with black American performers. He worked particularly closely with Lou Rawls and Cannonball Adderley as well as with artists like Letta Mbulu and white rock performers such as the Electric Prunes and David McCallum. Axelrod created Capitol Records’ black music division in the 1960’s, and he was the chief architect of its sound.
Some of Axelrod’s work with Capitol’s roster of performers has been unavailable for some time, making vinyl copies of these albums much sought-after items. The two David McCallum tracks that open this set barely find McCallum in residence (some wordless, echo-ey vocals), but Axelrod’s imprint is all over them. The wide open drum sound, so different from the dry, dead sound that so many producers sought, imaginative use of orchestra—something like a West Coast Gil Evans-esque version of the classic 70s blaxploitation soundtrack sound.
At the same time, there could be incredible delicacy and sensuality, as on the flute solo on the McCallum track “The Edge.” It’s all silk and whispers over the hard concrete edge of the city. Axelrod was able to utilize this same sound, in a bit less wide-screen fashion, beautifully behind the soulful, often weary, but always smooth vocal work of Lou Rawls. The tracks included here, “Lifetime Monologue,” which shows Axelrod and Rawls approaching something between the old doo-wop spoken monologue and rap, and the classic “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” can’t help but revive interest in this period of Rawls’ career.
Most of the rest of the collection focuses on Axelrod’s own projects for the label, Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, and Earth Rot. Much of what the listener hears in Axelrod’s work will depend on the direction from which that listener approaches it. Soul and R&B aficionados will hear his soul influence, rock fans will hear psychedelic-laced concept rock. Arrangers will hear masterful use of available musical elements, musicians will hear superior musicianship that sharpens the expression of Axelrod’s musical vision.
Two constant musical companions on Axelrod’s projects were bassist Carol Kaye and pianist Don Randi. Listen to the percolating bass line Kaye lays on “The Fly” and Randi’s harpsichord work. These musicians were able to execute the music that Axelrod had in his head, and their familiarity with a wide variety of styles, including funk, rock, blues, R&B, and more from their frequent studio work, fueled their ability to provide both exciting and loose-sounding rhythm work that menaced and rippled beneath Axelrod’s orchestrations.
The next to last track is Don Randi’s performance of Lalo Schifrin’s “Theme from The Fox”, which again bears Axelrod’s imprint in the drums and the orchestral arrangement.
Rounding out the disc is Cannonball Adderley’s “Tensity” from the album Dialogues for Jazz Quintet and Orchestra. Adderley’s group consists of Adderley and brother Nat, Joe Zawinul, Walter Booker, and Roy McCurdy, and they cook mightily over and around Axelrod’s highly complimentary string arrangements. This might be one of the few ‘with strings’ concepts that really, really works! Axelrod really brought the soul in Adderley’s sax work to the fore, a fact that didn’t always sit well with mainstream jazz fans as the saxophonist’s career went on.
This track, recorded in 1970, finds Adderley full of fire, launching into whoops and cries that belie the influence of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler just as much as those of Parker. Zawinul plays his electric piano around the accompanying vamps, going from blending in to standing out within the space of a phrase, a technique he would employ early on with Weather Report.
You can get more comprehensive overviews of David Axelrod’s career, but The Edge is a really well sequenced listening experience and gives a nice place to begin exploring Axelrod’s recorded legacy.