David Axelrod is not a big fan of sampling. “It’s screw you money” he tells the Royal Festival Hall audience over the strains of “The Edge”, a track famously plundered by Dr Dre for “The Next Episode”. But, he concedes, that without the crate-digging hip hop fraternity a concert like this, recorded in front of a packed and appreciative Royal Festival Hall audience in 2017, would be nigh on impossible.
Axelrod’s back catalogue has been ransacked by producers almost as frequently as James Brown’s; his marriage of sweeping florid orchestration and drum heavy funk has been the bedrock for countless hip-hop tracks.
Hero of Hip Hop
Recognition has grown for Axelrod’s music and, through his association with artists like Dre and DJ Shadow, his star has been raised from that of an all but forgotten composer to that of a fully fledged musical icon. This resurrection in fortunes culminated in this concert, and for that we can all be grateful to those hip hop recyclers and those royalty cheques that the great man has been able to cash over the years.
With the Festival Hall house band in tow, Axelrod retreads some of the highlights of his musical career. The majority of the selections on show are taken from his two classic William Blake-inspired albums Songs of Innocence (67) and Songs of Experience (68).
It is a shame that none of the great musicians that worked with Axelrod on his greatest records could have been present at the concert. Earl Palmer, Carol Kaye, Howard Roberts, Don Randi etc, all played their part in realising Axelrod’s musical concepts, whilst also stamping their own indelible marks on them with their incredible solos.
However it is a minor point as the Orchestra accompanying Axelrod are a fine bunch of musicians in their own right, and their own individual talents are brought to the fore through Axelrod’s compositions. After a tentative almost nervous start, they soon settle into the groove.
Arguably the drummer here doesn’t have the same intuitive touch of Earl Palmer, but Palmer was one, if not the, greatest session drummer in history and with the bar raised so high, many would have failed to live up to such brilliance.
After a dissonant re-imagining of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” and fairly restrained rendition of “The Edge”, the orchestra find their feet on “Song of Innocence”; which is slowed down and extended here, sounding not too dissimilar to the hazy sunshine jazz of Roy Ayres.
“Tensity”, one of the best tracks penned by Axelrod for the great Cannnonball Adderley, is given terrific treatment; Axelrod lets members of the orchestra indulge in long extended solos, with notable contributions from saxophones, trumpets, guitars and bass.
“Holy Are You” penned by Axelrod for the Electric Prunes is given a respectful vocal delivery by the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, and is replete with the same sighing strings and mournful clarinet line of the original.
The best and most successful cut here is also Axelrod’s most famous and most sampled: “Holy Thursday”. You can tell how fanatical the fans in the crowd are as they instantly descend into shouts and calls of applause as soon as those first warm piano chords of the track are played. The whole orchestra is on form here, with a particularly graceful solo by Nick Etwell on trumpet. The vibes and soaring guitar perfectly recreate the cosmic brilliance of the original cut.
While many may have initial reservations about the orchestra, they certainly do justice to the many shades and textures of Axelrod’s musical vision over the course of the 13 tracks. It is a fantastic concert which rewards repeatedly listening. What is most important however is that the DVD puts a face, a voice and a personality to a man who, for many of his fans, was just a name on a record sleeve. Axelrod’s place in musical history is assured; the fact that he is still alive and well and able to share his vision with the world is the real joy.