The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, October 01, 2002
Anthology II

Is Axelrod really an avatar? The first Anthology compilation on Stateside suggested not; from the Electric Prunes' "Holy Are You" to Lou Rawls' punctum-filled firing up of "For What It's Worth," this was clearly NOT a routine clock-puncher unjustifiably resurrected by Gilles Bloody Peterson and James Flipping Lavelle. Now there is a second one available, Anthology II, which if anything is both lighter and darker.

There are certainly few more purposeful starts to an album - even a compilation - than Cannonball Adderley's "Tensity." Scored in 1970 for a large ensemble at the urgent behest of Adderley, who saw it as vital therapy for Axelrod following the then recent drug-related death of his son, the immense waves of brass and rhythm signify rebirth, and a not-too-hidden ecstasy which is very reminiscent of "Family Joy Oh Boy," the equally determined opening track of Michael Gibbs' contemporaneous and eponymous debut album. Indeed Axelrod and Gibbs seem to have been travelling on parallel orchestral lines; the voicings are direct without being over-simple, and the rhythm can go from concrete to diffuse and back within the space of a few seconds. One might also point out a certain similarity in theme and approach to 23 Skidoo's "Coup" of 14 years later. In any case, this dynamic framework compels Adderley to blast out possibly his most passionate and committed alto solo on record; joyfully leaping intervals, moving into Dolphy-esque clusters, sounding very much like Mike Osborne at his most intense. Brother Nat follows on cornet (with partial voice-through-the-valves multiphonics), then Joe Zawinul on an oddly distantly-mixed set of keyboards; this seemingly abstruse yet deeply felt solo is, according to the sleevenotes, representative of what Zawinul felt about Axelrod's son's death. Yet grief is never allowed to overwhelm the positive intensity of this remarkable performance.

The rest of this compilation veers between the mid-'60s and now (but last year's rather scrappy self-titled comeback/remix album on Mo'Wax is not represented). Mostly his orchestral pieces are so rhythmically propulsive that you understand why Shadow and followers venerate him; astonishingly punchy by 1968/9 standards (even though remastered). The Blake adaptations - from his two late '60s albums Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience - all seem to focus on cumuli of orchestral chords which float in the middleground and are either directed in a positive ("Song of Innocence") or virulently ominous negative ("The Sick Rose") direction, in the latter case without resorting to hysteria but simply reharmonising whole-tone chords and sustaining them at right angles to the rhythm to create unease. Though considerably less prosaic than Mike Westbrook's many series of Blake adaptations (best sampled on 1980's Bright As Fire: The Westbrook Blake), these understated minatures still have a lot of impact, possibly betraying the influence of some Third Stream composers such as Duane Tatro and John Carisi (for especial relevance, hear the latter's "Angkor Wat" on Gil Evans' 1961 Into The Hot album)

On this compilation you will also find a couple of tracks "conducted" by Man From U*N*C*L*E* star David McCallum, though musically they are Axelrod through and through. The more notable piece is "The Edge" which turns out to be the musical basis of Dr Dre's "The Next Episode." Perhaps mercifully, McCallum's Axelrod-produced Top 40 vocal hit "Communication" is not included. There are also a couple of fine pop-soul workouts from Lou Rawls, from whom Axelrod always seems to extract the most committed of his performances (see his astonishing vocal on "Loved One" from the aforementined Mo'Wax album); particularly noteworthy is "Dead End Street," which starts with a Rawls state-of-the-nation (well Chicago) narrative (apparently inspired after he'd been laid up in bed with mumps for three weeks in '68 and watching TV) and which is noticeably similar in approach to his performance on "Let's Clean Up The Ghetto" by the Philly All-Stars some nine years later.

Also included here is a lengthy excerpt from his 1993 orchestral work Holocaust. While one doesn't doubt Axelrod's deep commitment to this piece, I have to say it doesn't quite work; soprano vocals overegg the pudding somewhat, and the whole section ("Kristallnacht") comes across as sub-Bartok/Richard Strauss melodrama (specifically Bluebeard's Castle/Electra), lacking the killer final blow of Schoenberg's A Survivor From Warsaw or the far more direct and harrowing Kristallnacht of John Zorn in 1991. And when Ernie Watts' sax floats in over the massed orchestra, one is indelibly reminded of Mingus' "The Chill Of Death" and driven straight back to Let My Children Hear Music.

Nonetheless, this album also showcases Axelrod's take on warped pop. One is a beyond bizarre rendition of the Beatles' "Good Day Sunshine" by one Ray Brown - not the bassist, but an Australian pop idol of the late '60s (who evidently never crossed over). The song begins with a Copland-style brass fanfare and is continually detoured by silences, slowing down, etc. Preposterous yet perplexing.

Perhaps the most bizarre track of all here is the most recent one: a taster for his forthcoming C&W (?!) album, "I Fall To Pieces." Here, the straight-faced vocal (by one Marinette) is gradually subverted by increasingly ominous string lines, magnifying her little death into a global catastrophe. One is extremely keen to hear more from this enterprise.

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