Wednesday, February 18, 2009
David Axelrod’s Seriously Deep has obtained a reputation as a Holy Grail for crate-diggers. Long out of print and filled with breaks and beats that scream “Sample me!” it is exactly the kind of hidden treasure that aspiring hip-hop producers would go nuts for. Much of Axelrod’s current notoriety, in fact, stems from the frequent use of Axelrod samples in some rather noteworthy hip-hop productions. (For instance, fans of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… are advised to seek out Axelrod’s wonderful Songs of Experience to hear a familiar piano line.)
Listening to a David Axelrod album, it’s easy to see why he’s sampled so much; his production gives everything a full (but not over-polished) sound, and he lets his compositions stretch out and develop, which means a lot of loop-able stretches of just drums or just drums and bass, particularly on this album. “Easy to sample” does not necessarily translate to “Fun to listen to,” but there’s another quality to Axelrod’s music that makes him appealing to sampling and non-sampling listeners alike: his penchant for evocative, cinematic grooves.
On Seriously Deep, Axelrod’s haunting string arrangements take a backseat, leaving the emphasis on Rhodes piano, syncopated clavinet, saxophone and, above all, a lock-tight rhythm section. This album is all about low-key, simmering funk. Perhaps the direction taken here is partially due to the fact that Axelrod, unusually for him, didn’t produce this album himself, leaving those duties to Jimmy Bowen and Cannonball Adderley, (Axelrod had produced several records for Adderly before this album was made), and is given a “Composed, Arranged and Conducted by” credit. The fact that anyone, particularly someone who is not also playing an instrument, is credited with “composing” gives you an idea of what this like. It’s funky jazz fusion, not too far removed from Headhunters-era Herbie Hancock, but with more structure than is usually heard in this kind of thing. The musicians don’t have room to noodle, and use their limited soloing space efficiently.
Axelrod doesn’t offer flowery melodic lines here, and often the other instruments seem like they’re just the icing on a great big drum cake, something to fill in the sonic empty space around the drums and percussion played by Ndugu and Mailto Correa, respectively. Frequently, everything else drops out, leaving just naked drums. The second-in-command seat is occupied by Jim Hughhart’s rubbery, assured (read: bad-ass) bass-playing.
Typically, jazz-funk isn’t focused on creating a setting or atmosphere, evoking, if anything, a sun-warmed Detroit sidewalk or a stoned house party. Even when working in a typically earth-bound mileu like this, however, the perennially cinematic Axelrod can’t help blasting into space; not the cartoon galaxy of Parliament, but a spooky, extra-terrestrial slow-drive. This record, album-closer “Reverie” in particular, takes its pimped-out groove to all kind of mysterious and seductive places. Occasionally, some dated synth-tones threaten to break the spell, but after a few listens you don’t mind.
This album is now readily available, thanks to the fine folks at Dusty Groove America, who reissued it in 2008. It appears to have been mastered directly from a mint-condition vinyl copy, and while there is a very brief dropout in the left channel during track two, and a tiny bit of static during track six, the sound is otherwise terrific; warm, clear and unhindered by the compression and questionable EQ-tinkering that often plagues digital remastering. It's a more-than-welcome release.