Record man’s lush cuts re­dis­cov­ered by hip-hop

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - IN MEMORY - By Jon Cara­man­ica

David Ax­el­rod, a pro­ducer, ar­ranger and com­poser who in the 1960s and ’70s was one of the pre-em­i­nent fig­ures bridg­ing and ex­pand­ing the worlds of jazz and R&B — and whose ca­reer was given new life be­gin­ning in the ’90s thanks to hip-hop pro­duc­ers who sam­pled his or­nate com­po­si­tions — died Feb. 5 in Bur­bank, Calif. He was 85. The cause was lung can­cer, his wife, Terri, said. Ax­el­rod’s sig­na­ture sound mixed the flex­i­bil­ity of jazz and the lus­cious­ness of soul with the in­flu­ence of com­posers like Wag­ner and Stravin­sky, and a pen­chant for psy­che­delic flights of fancy. His com­po­si­tions were ex­pan­sive and ma­jes­tic but also a lit­tle testy and tense, as if messy erup­tion were im­mi­nent but be­ing held at bay by beauty. Ax­el­rod was born April 17, 1931, in the area that be­came known as South Cen­tral Los An­ge­les, to Mor­ris Ge­orge Ax­el­rod and the former Pearl Plaskoff. He be­gan fre­quent­ing the jazz and R&B clubs on Cen­tral Av­enue, Los An­ge­les’ vi­brant mu­si­cal hub, at a young age. “I was raised by blacks,” he told Big Daddy mag­a­zine in 2001, dis­cussing his up­bring­ing in a city with fast-chang­ing racial dy­nam­ics. “For a while I thought I was black.”

His fa­ther, an or­ga­nizer for the rad­i­cal In­dus­trial Work­ers of the World union, died at the cusp of David’s teenage years.

After short times in New Jersey and New York and a stint in the Marines, Ax­el­rod re­turned to Los An­ge­les and be­came en­meshed in the city’s nightlife and mu­sic in­dus­try. He spent a cou­ple of years along­side pi­anist Ger­ald Wig­gins, who taught him to read mu­sic, and be­fore long he took on record pro­mo­tion jobs and, even­tu­ally, pro­duc­tion work.

His first prom­i­nent call­ing card was sax­o­phon­ist Harold Land’s 1960 album “The Fox,” an out­stand­ing ex­am­ple of hard bop from a city not known for it. Not long after that, Ax­el­rod joined the staff of Capi­tol Records as an ex­ec­u­tive fo­cused on devel­op­ing tal­ent, help­ing to cre­ate what he said was the first black-mu­sic divi­sion at a ma­jor la­bel.

He shep­herded Lou Rawls out of a main­stream pop­jazz sound and into for­ward-lean­ing soul, and worked with sax­o­phon­ist Can­non­ball Ad­der­ley, who was fa­mil­iar with Ax­el­rod from “The Fox.”

He also pro­duced in­stru­men­tal al­bums con­ducted by David McCal­lum, a Scot­tish ac­tor (“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”) who in the late 1960s took a pop mu­sic de­tour.

In the mid-1970s pop tastes be­gin to shift to­ward disco, a sound Ax­el­rod had lit­tle use for, and he fell out of fa­vor, lead­ing to a lean stretch that in­cluded fi­nan­cial strug­gles and near home­less­ness.

His wife was in­volved in a se­ri­ous car crash in the 1980s, and he de­voted him­self to man­ag­ing her care for some time.

She sur­vives him, as do sons Michael, Dana and Brian; four grand­chil­dren; and two great-grand­chil­dren. A fourth son, Scott, died in the 1960s.

In the 1990s, crate-dig­ging hip-hop pro­duc­ers be­gan un­earthing Ax­el­rod’s pro­duc­tions and sam­pling them widely, en­am­ored with their thick­ness and com­plex­ity. Ax­el­rod’s sounds ap­pear on Lau­ryn Hill’s break­through album, “The Mise­d­u­ca­tion of Lau­ryn Hill”; DJ Shadow’s “Endtro­duc­ing …”; and Dr. Dre’s “2001”; as well as songs by De La Soul, Lil Wayne, Mos Def, Madlib, Kool G Rap and more.

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