Second Time Around

David Axelrod

The Edge: David Axelrod at Capitol Records 1966-1970 (Blue Note)

Mizell Brothers

Mizell: The Mizell Brothers at Blue Note Records 1972-1976 and Beyond (Blue Note)

One might theorize that, aside from Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach, most old-school producers stayed in the background as the artists they worked with headed for the limelight. But things have definitely changed since then. The rise of hip-hop and rap brought about the apotheosis of the star producer, whose touch could create the key hit to drive an album up the charts. It's in this climate that Blue Note has released compilations of the much-sampled David Axelrod and the Mizell Brothers.

Although Axelrod recorded critically acclaimed solo albums and scored hits with singer Lou Rawls and saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, he suffered years of destitution and obscurity. Later, however, his work started showing up in cuts by DJ Shadow, Dr. Dre, and Madlib, showering him with royalties that eventually got him back on his feet. The Edge: David Axelrod at Capitol Records 1966-1970 showcases why he became the samplee of choice in a compilation of choice tracks from his heyday. Though Dre made the clicking guitar intro of David McCallum's "The Edge" famous with his tune "Next Episode," the medieval horns and flute melody show the song to be much more than simply the sample. Elsewhere, Axelrod and Rawls set a rap prototype with "Lifetime Monologue," a spoken word piece over drum break beats. The producer, however, comes into his own on his solo tracks. "The Smile," from his William Blake-inspired album, Songs of Innocence, showcases his characteristic use of funky beats, fusion guitar, and floating organum in the strings and horns. He also proves himself to be clued into the avant-garde through the piercing dissonance of Songs of Experience's "A Divine Image."

Unlike Axelrod, brothers Larry and Fonce Mizell never stepped into the limelight. Instead, they used their signature combination of jazz solos, groovy rhythms, and smooth string, horn, and vocal arrangement on jazz-inflected funk and disco hits by A Taste of Honey and trumpeter Donald Byrd. Their self-curated compilation, Mizell: The Mizell Brothers at Blue Note Records 1972-1976 and Beyond proves how influential they have been. On the Byrd-performed "Design a Nation," the brothers create the blueprint for smooth jazz, but their urban grittiness drives away the genre's contemporary curse of being the soundtrack for bourgeois languor. The effortless beats on "(Fallin' Like) Dominoes" shows why the brothers have been sampled by Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul. A new remix of another Byrd cut, "Think Twice," indicates the brothers have been listening to developments in vocal house, though the sonic update reveals how much their work was a product of its time. Still, both compilations effectively draw attention back to two bodies of work that continue to resonate in modern pop. (Alex K. Fong)