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Concert Preview - Joe Sample

By Mark Towns
Published: June 5 1997, Houston Press

Quick. How many world-renowned jazz pianists from Houston can you name? Well let's see, there's Joe Sample and, um ... well, there's Joe Sample. Houston's pianistic claim to fame and co-founder of one of the world's first jazz-funk bands, the Crusaders, is at age 58 still realizing new creative visions while preserving his music's soul and jazz roots.

Although he records with a lineup that includes guitar and saxophone, Sample travels light, touring with a basic trio lineup of himself on keyboards and Jay Anderson on upright bass and Lenny Castro on drums, providing perfect support for Sample's pensive explorations.

Sample is one of the few jazz artists who actually performs jazz that you can come away humming, weaving memorable melodic lines in and out of the tapestry of soulful funk. And Sample hardly ever plays the standard jazz swing rhythm with walking bass lines, relying instead on combinations of grooves drawing from Latin, soul, gospel and blues influences. His closest contemporary, stylistically speaking, would probably be Ramsey Lewis, but where Lewis mainly performs music composed by others, Sample plays mostly his own compositions, tunes noted for their beautiful melodies and funky, down-home soul beats.

The impetus for Sample's journey into the music world came when he was a teen in Houston; after being fired from two different jobs in a three-week period, he decided that he preferred being his own boss and began devoting every spare moment to practicing the piano. He developed his skills to the point that by the time he graduated from Wheatley High School, he and fellow Houstonians Wilton Felder (bass and sax), Wayne Henderson (trombone) and Stix Hooper (drums) were ready to hit the big time in Los Angeles. They started out as the Jazz Crusaders, eventually dropping the "Jazz" from their name as they became one of the most popular groove-oriented jazz acts of the sixties and seventies.

Much current pop/jazz owes a debt to the Crusaders, and now even rap stars are turning to Sample's music for its groove appeal. Tupac Shakur's "Dear Momma" featured samples from Sample's "In All My Wildest Dreams," and Queen Latifah's "Unity" is based on the Crusaders' 1970 tune "A Message from the Inner City." While Sample is encouraged by rap's reintroduction of hip beats to pop music, he laments the lack of substance and soul he sees in a lot of pop/jazz. Vowing not to let his own music fall into the same rut, he aims to uphold the traditions of soul and jazz.

But upholding a tradition is not to be confused with lack of innovation. Sample feels the secret of his continued success comes from his maintaining the feel of the roots of his music while at the same time exploring new areas. As he's noted, "If you have to play the same notes the same exact way every single night, you are just going to bore yourself. The jazz artist will do anything to keep the music fresh, fun and inspiring."

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