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Joe Sample: Solo Crusade

Joe Sample

Some of the key players in Joe Sample’s new release, Soul Shadows (Verve), are construction workers. The veteran keyboardist built a house in Houston last year, and one of the aims was to create a separate piano room. The house was finished in January, and to give it the acid test, Sample recorded two sessions of solo piano in March-the results are heard on Soul Shadows.

“The whole purpose of building it was to have a piano room that was isolated from the house,” said the pianist. “I’ve always wanted a piano room with a wonderful piano in it because I’ve always played late night.”

Sample relocated to his native Houston 10 years ago after several decades in California. He was a founding member of the Crusaders, one of jazz’s longest running groups and key figures in popularizing jazz-funk in the early ’70s. As a leader, Sample, 65, has recorded frequently during the last 35 years, but Soul Shadows is his first solo disc.

“I’ve done solo pieces on isolated recordings,” he says, “but in concert, I’ve always played solo piano since the very beginning.” Sample says that he’s often approached about playing benefit shows, and while he’s eager to lend a hand-as long as the organizers supply a good piano-it’s not always easy getting a group together so he typically performs solo.

Sample speaks in measured professorial tones. After a pause for reflection, he allows that he’s really always wanted to do solo piano recordings, but in ’69 when he started recording under his own name it was difficult to interest a record company in a solo piano disc. “Then Keith Jarrett went out did his record [The Koln Concert in 1975], and suddenly everyone wanted to do a solo piano record,” he says with a chuckle. “When everybody goes in one direction, I have to go the opposite way.”

The repertoire for Soul Shadows, including Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Jelly Roll Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp” and Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” was partially inspired by the pioneering bandleader James Reese Europe. “My father was in the Army during the World War I,” Sample says, “and when I was young he would tell me stories about the 369th Regimental Band and its leader, James Reese Europe. He would sing ‘How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm,’ one of Europe’s signature songs,” and one that the pianist interprets on Soul Shadows. “Today every time I hear that song it rattles my insides. As a young musician I wondered, where did our music come from? I’ve become a bit of a historian of jazz and all African-American music and recently discovered a biography of James Reese Europe. Reading that biography has given me a clearer understanding of why he has been so important not only to me, but to all of us.”

Sample renders the CD’s tunes in a barrelhouse manner that would do any stride pianist proud. “I grew up on stride piano and it’s a natural instinct for me to play with both hands,” he says. “In the ’50s, as my tastes went more toward the bebop pianists, I noticed that my left hand had weakened.”

Sample says he was also attracted to the solo piano context as it gave him a chance to discuss the history of American music. It’s an interest of his that was spurred by the CD-reissue boom. “My elder brother, Alexander Sample was 15 years my senior. He played in an all-black Naval band, and he had a tremendous collection of 78s,” Sample says. “The advent of the CDs put me in search of the older music that I loved and grew up on. I bought many, many CDs in Japan, and it was there that I found the complete Capitol recordings of Nat ‘King’ Cole, and the complete recordings of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis.”

Collecting the classics has become essential as Sample finds little to like in today’s music. In particular he says country music is too dominated by pop formulas and that in R&B, the male singers are only singing to women rather than letting men empathize with their feelings. He saves some of his most pointed criticisms for jazz, which he feels is becoming too intellectual. “The more we prioritize intellect, the more we move away from the spirituality that I believe music is all about,” he says. “When I sit and play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, I’m feeling the same thing that someone felt two hundred years ago. I don’t think a demonstration of intellect is going to transcend one generation to another.”