Children of the Sun honours Caribbean influences on Joe Sample and The Crusaders


This article by Robin Lynam appeared in the South China Morning Post.

Last year wasn’t a good one for former members of The Crusaders. Trombonist Wayne Henderson and pianist Joe Sample died, leaving saxophonist/bassist Wilton Felder and drummer Stix Hooper as the only survivors of the original line-up. Joe Cocker, who died in December, was one of their guest vocalists.

Although Henderson left the band in 1975, he revived the name of the Jazz Crusaders – as they were called when founded in 1961 – for a few projects in the 1990s, and the other three reasserted their rights to The Crusaders moniker with the 2003 album Rural Renewal.

But generally, from the early 1990s onward, Sample concentrated on a solo career, collaborative projects with artists such as Randy Crawford and Lalah Hathaway, and high-profile sessions.

Sample was a popular artist, so it’s likely record companies are checking their vaults for more music that can be issued posthumously.

The last project he was able to complete personally, before his death from lung cancer last September aged 75, is now available on CD and through iTunes.

Children of the Sun is probably not the sort of album many of Sample’s admirers would have expected. Although he did occasionally work with large ensembles – the live 1981 Crusaders’ album Royal Jam featuring B.B. King and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is one example – he was mostly associated with funky small-group jazz and R&B.

Sample scored this music for the NDR Bigband, which commissioned it, and performed it live in Europe with the band in 2011. Some clips can be seen on YouTube. Inspiration came from a visit to the Caribbean island of St Croix in 1995. He took a hike up a steep hill, and while looking out to sea started thinking about the island’s history in the slave trade.

“This seemingly idyllic place had been an island of suffering and torment, floating in a blue abyss. There was no place to escape to. I imagined the slaves dreaming of wings that would enable them to fly their babies to freedom,” the pianist recalled.

When Sample got the call from the NDR Bigband, “I realised I had been writing this music since the spring of 1995 when I climbed that rise. African-American writers have for years referred to those early slaves as ‘Children of the Sun’. This is my tribute to them.”

For the recording, Sample again turned to the NDR Bigband, but this time with Steve Gadd replacing Robert Mehmet Ikiz on drums. He has history with Gadd. A good example of the two working together is the title track of Steely Dan’s 1977 jazz-rock masterpiece Aja (on which sometime Crusader Larry Carlton plays guitar).

It’s unfair to compare a live show directly to a studio performance which allows opportunities for re-takes and tweaking as well as superior sound, but the music does seem to come to life more on the CD, and Gadd has a way of turning up the voltage on a session.

In a 1983 interview with Downbeat magazine, Sample, an avid student of jazz history, mentioned a strong connection he felt to Afro-Caribbean rhythms, manifest in both the music that he made independently and with The Crusaders.

“We have an island feeling in our music. That Gulf Coast – somehow there is a relationship with the Caribbean. We have a lot of those rhythms in our music. When we start breaking down the actual rhythmic things of a composition, I hear all kinds of rhythms that come out of South America, Nassau and everywhere else in the islands,” he said.

Sample left much too early, but a swansong project honouring that Caribbean heritage is a fitting finale to the distinguished career of a composer and instrumentalist whose critical standing would, perhaps, be considerably higher had he not sold quite so many records.

Meanwhile, the jazz gigs of the week take place on Friday and Saturday at Grappa’s Cellar, which is presenting a who’s who of locally based musicians raising funds for the Jockey Club Sarah Roe School for special-needs students.

Take Three

Three classic albums featuring the piano playing and compositions of the late Joe Sample.

  • Lighthouse ’68 (1968, Pacific Jazz): the Jazz Crusaders captured live at one of their regular gigs, augmented by bassist Buster Williams. Their soul-jazz interpretation of The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby is the stand-out track.
  • Fancy Dance (1969, Gazell Productions): Sample’s solo debut finds him playing challenging piano trio jazz with bassist Red Mitchell and drummer J.C. Moses.
  • Midnight Believer (1978, MCA): The Crusaders back B.B. King on a career-reviving album, dominated by Sample and Will Jennings songs, several of which, including Hold On and When it All Comes Down, still feature in his live set.
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