Joe Sample located his jazz bag whilst at Texas Southern University in the 1950s. With future Jazz Crusader chums Stix Hooper and Wilton Felder, this trio emulated the slinky grooves of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and then took the pulse of what would become known as jazz-funk, even if that term barely covers one iota of what they would achieve. Increasingly popular on the West Coast as well as in their native Lone Star State, the Jazz Crusaders became ’go-to’ experts in their own right while producing recordings that showcased up and coming guitarists like David T. Walker, Arthur Adams and Larry Carlton – the latter being quite possibly the greatest electric guitar man on the planet. Discuss.
Writers and arrangers to a man the eventual Crusaders set the template for modern fusion.Yet Sample’s solo career was always going to be a given. A restless and pioneering spirit, his Fancy Dance was a modest yet brilliant affair and Carmel made his accessible if erudite musicianship commercial. Good for us that it did. Working with Abraham Laboriel, Dean Parks, the Stix man and Hubert Laws, Joe sashayed into the mainstream here on seven self-penned gems that include signature tunes like ‘Cannery Row’ and ‘A Sunny Day in Monterey’– blissful elegiac items that summon up the sunshine and shadows of Sample’s adopted California while never betraying his deep Southern and Texan roots.
During the 1980s he consistently amazes, within and without parent group The Crusaders. Voices in the Rain and Swing Street Café (with David T. Walker) are packed with sonatas, swing and the sultriest jazz funk known to man. They are so recommended, it almost goes without saying. Then we come to The Hunter (1982). This total classic includes his famous pieces ‘Night Flight’ and ‘Blue Ballet’ where guitarists Dean Parks, Phil Upchurch and David Spinozza add to his keyboard balm. And yep, that is Steve Gadd on drums pretty much throughout.
Joe’s 1987 album Roles finds him continuing to work with his close friend, accomplice and producer Wilton Felder – the emphasis here is on pushing the jazz funk boat out to its furthest possible region with trumpeter Sal Marquez, percussionist Lenny Castro and vibraphone ace Bobby Hutcherson, adding an innate steel to what is very much a Latin influenced recording.
This period of our delightful relationship with Joe climaxes in 1985’s Oasis, where a tried and trusted circle of players joins him on a plethora of sublime tracks. Following now in the tradition of The Crusaders by utilising a sterling vocal expert, Sample is at another peak, working alongside lyricist Will Jennings (who co-penned ‘Street Life’– the hit, the legend) and the siren known as Phyllis Hyman on the crossover smash ‘The Survivor’.
After a run of fine discs, we pick Joe up again on The Song Lives On – a sumptuous collaboration with Lalah Hathaway, daughter of the amazing Mr. Donny Hathaway, revisiting some older ballads like ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away’, ‘Street Life’ and an outstanding interpretation of the 1950s torch tour de force ‘Fever’. Like the title suggests, the song does indeed live on here. It lingers and demands respect. Then in more recent years we have The Pecan Tree, featuring drummer James Gadson, and guitarist Dean Parks and yet another largely self-penned set, including ‘The Texas Two Step’ and ‘El Dorado’. It doesn’t get hotter or more humid than this disc.
So it goes. Soul Shadows (2004), a brace of albums with Ms. Randy Crawford and the most-recent Live – with drummer Steve Gadd and son Nicolas Sample – bring us up to date.
If you haven’t already started your investigations, then take a look at Collection, an anthology of priceless tracks from 1978 to 1985 – basically a creamy selection of Blue Thumb and MCA Sample standards that includes ‘Night Flight’ and the not to be overlooked ‘Woman You’re Driving Me Mad’. This is a ten cut primer of the highest order. To be honest, we’re not fussy when it comes to Joe Sample: simply because his music is so delightful that to pick up on him at any time is a blessing.
As he reaches his middle-70s the man is playing better than ever. It isn’t to much of a stretch to insist that he helped the whole jazz funk thing crossover and then become a standard by which other lesser players are judged. He is one of the musical gods. By any definition he is a tireless Crusader. Sample him and enjoy.
Words: Max Bell